Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wild Animal Tearing Its Way Out of a House

March 15, 10 pm

I'm lying in my own bed for the first time in almost a year.  It's quiet in the house, no wind blowing in through the window.  But the heady fragrance of lilies drifts over from the bedside table, a bouquet from my friend Flo.  Downstairs, our dog Gris-Gris sleeps on his bed by the door.

At 6:30 this morning, after landing in Anchorage, I boarded a small prop plane for the last leg of the journey home:  just me and two other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot.  Because of daylight savings, it was dark, so the landscape was invisible below us, light just tinging the horizon as the plane descended toward the Homer airport.  The cockpit door is always open on these planes, so I watched the twin strings of runway lights as we zeroed in on that narrow corridor, what's seemed for so long a vanishing point.  But it didn't vanish or recede, it just grew wider.  We hit the ground with a bounce.  I pulled the wool hat with ears my stepdaughter Elli crocheted me for Christmas over my head.  When the plane door opened, I shouldered my backpack, ducked my head, and climbed down the narrow steps into the cold air of Alaska winter.  A few paces and I was at the terminal door, pushing it open to brightness of fluorescent lights and the faces of friends who stood there waiting -- Toby, Flo, Kyra, Asia, and a few minutes later, sleepy-eyed and bundled in earth-toned wool like Norwegian elves, my step-daughter Eve and her fiance Eivin.  I broke into that hybrid sobbing-laughing thing as I put my arms around each one.  Strange to say, but as I leaned into each person, chest to chest, I felt my missing breast between us, and in that space, time and event, the life we'd lived apart and the mystery of it.  After my 65 pound bag arrived, they took me to Two Sisters Bakery, where we sat in the warmth of the wood-fired bread oven and drank tea and ate savory pastries and talked, as my friend David Grimes would say, quoting Brer Rabbit, "like there ain't been no hard times."

I don't know how to describe the feeling of today, driving through the town, the dingy sky grayed by an approaching front, the frozen lake, the mountains, the scratched gray expanse of Kachemak Bay, the buildings and roads I absorbed through my eyes with a sensation of such familiarity, it was like looking at my own face in the mirror.  But the odd thing is, when I do look at my own face in the mirror, it's not familiar to me at all.  It startles me still, as it did when I was bald.  And it's not just my newly dyed hair.  Though I fell naturally and effortlessly into conversation with my friends, my voice came from some other place.  My same old voice but filtered through another landscape's air and water.  Same voice, same hoe, new row, new farmer.  Same voice, new hair.

Yesterday, a few hours before boarding the plane in Kona, I had my hair dyed.  Everyone warns you your hair will grow back differently after chemo.  Many women get curls or afros.  Often the color is unexpected.  My hair grew in baby-fine and white as goose-down.  Gradually, darker hair grew in under the white, turning it grizzled, like a rabbit-pelt.  Recently, a smattering of copper hair grew in on top of my head.  Why did I dye it?  Perhaps privacy and vanity combined.  I didn't want people in Homer to see me and instantly think about my cancer ordeal.  "Wow.  Cancer really whooped her butt.  It turned her hair white."  Homer is a small town, and rumors fly and morph with each re-telling.  I was kidding myself of course.  I left Homer last year with thick, long, reddish-brown hair.  Now it's fine, cedar-colored and an inch, two at the most, long.  A little hair dye doesn't erase a thing like cancer.  And I realized, sitting with my friends at Two Sisters, I didn't want it to after all.  Looking different is a good thing, for myself when I look in the mirror, for myself reflected in another's eyes.  I am different.

16 March, noon

I fell asleep writing last night's post, an exhausted, fathoms-deep plunge after my all-night flights.  And woke in the dark well before dawn not knowing where I was.  It took a minute to understand I was not in Hawaii.  Then I remembered.  I'm in Homer.  I'm in my bed.  I'm home.  I literally patted myself down with my hands, patted the covers, to make it real.  I'd slept in that bed unmoving, hardly mussing the covers, as though sleeping in the bed of a stranger, ready to bolt.  I pressed and pressed my hands against myself:  You're here now.  Body, this is home.

In yoga class, hours later, my body still felt strange, as though it had forgotten how to do the poses in that old familiar space with its view of the mountains, its rubber-coated floor, its mirrored wall, its shelves of balls and matts and punching gloves.  My arms wanted to collapse as I shifted from downward to upward-facing dog through chataranga, the push-up pose.  Part of it was that my friend Asia's routine was different, the music was different.  She too had been through a year of change, struggle, growth like fire melting deeply frozen ground.  Posture to posture was a poem recounting that story.  It's not just me.  This place I call home has changed too.

Before we began to actually do the physical pose part of yoga, Asia had read from Rumi.  It's like an epigraph to a poem that is a daily practice, a reading like that, offering a way to "read" the series of movements, the breathing, a way perhaps to illustrate the truth the epigraph holds for you.  Here is that epigraph, the last half of a poem called "The Pickaxe:"

This is a rented house.  You don't own the deed.
You have a lease, and you've set up a little shop,
where you barely make a living sewing patches
on torn clothing.  Yet only a few feet underneath
are two veins, pure red and bright gold carnelian.
Quick!  take the pickaxe and pry the foundation.
You've got to quit this seamstress work.
What does the patch-sewing mean, you ask.  Eating
and drinking.  The heavy cloak of the body
is always getting torn.  You patch it with food,
and other restless ego-satisfactions.  Rip up
one board from the shop floor and look into
the basement.  You'll see two glints in the dirt.

(This is from The Essential Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks).

Is this why, in my house, I haven't yet unpacked?  I began almost instantly tearing it apart, taking all the clothes out of the closet and drawers, emptying bathroom cupboards, kitchen cupboards, leaving things half-done so it looks not like someone moving in, but someone trying to break out.  Is this why the nearly empty, silent refrigerator filled me with peace?  Why every other space felt cluttered with the accumulations of some other life, a life no longer relevant?  There's a compulsion in me to empty things.  It feels manic, but perhaps it's some deeper impulse.  Last year, cancer was like a pickaxe that pried the foundation of my life, and I had to dig through a lot of dirt to find a glint or two of carnelian.  And maybe I'm still digging, hacking, prying, to find the vein of gold.

Lying in Shivasana at the end of class, I drifted as I did yesterday in the bathtub, as the figure does in the image on the Osho Zen card, my brain quiet, my body floating, absorbing this light, this air, this temperature, this geography, this reality of myself back in Alaska.  Just before Asia "woke us up" from the meditation pose (which is also known as the "corpse pose"), I listened to the words of the song playing softly in the background, words that spoke of climbing mountains and crossing oceans to find one's way home.  I'm still finding my way.  There are mountains inside me.  There are seas.  Stay within, a voice said to me.  In the shower room later, I scribbled in my journal, quick notes, trying to grab what I knew was fleeting, something whispered in my ear during sleep:  Home is inside.  Home is in yoga.  It is not a place.  It is not a house.            


  1. Your words bring me there where you are. I can feel the place, I can hear the sounds. It all makes sense. You create home where ever you are-it is one of your gifts. Now your old Alaska home will welcome you back and you will create a new home blending all you left with all you brought back from this year.

  2. A comment from Flo, which she e-mailed to me:

    In Jakarta, me in pre-menopause and unaware, my hair began to turn silver. In three months, I went from a brunette to my silver head today, and feared bottled water. Each day the mirror told me something unaccounted for was happening. Maybe it was stress of another culture and tropical geography? Civet cats tore the roof as we slept, rats ran in the attic, frogs invaded my classroom and pythons the playground where I taught in Jakarta International School for three years; required servants (I called staff) fed us, cleaned the house, drove us to destinations, washed the car each day, giant spiders, fed hamburger by neighbor children, built nests outside our bedroom window, mosquitoes bit me daily, and once food poisoning almost took my life. Everything every day was new and exhausting to find my way in a Muslim culture.

    When we returned to Homer after a year of overseas work, people used to ask what I was taking, because I seemed giddy. It was oxygen, real honest to goodness clean air in my blood. At an annual physical for overseas work, I was asked how long it had been since I stopped smoking due to residue in my lungs. People in Homer cannot understand Jakarta dirt, pollution of 14 million people! People treat a silver haired person differently than a brunette. Silver hair says AARP, hip replacement, arthritis, old woman, I felt none of that yet changed. Excited to swap stories, people discussed life in Homer, unable to imagine life in Jakarta.

    You are different. I was (am) different. You lived through removal of your breast, female sex organ, milk container, money hiding place, woman symbol. You survived a micro-organism battle. 'It' raged, you raged to its death and part of yourself too. You are brave, courageous and more lovable after such onslaught. You inspire others to face life's battles not only as you write about yourself, but as you live with cancer and face its penetrating face, pen and paper, computer and write down its wicked bones until 'it' runs off the bloody page.

    Eva, I didn't notice or feel your removed breast in the hug, didn't see that. All I saw was your crying-laughing, awkward "How do I do this?" entry, understood that feeling and felt privileged to be with you. You can't see the former Eva in the mirror, because a new, more wonderful Eva has arrived and unfolds each day, a mystery we are daily. Some of us don't know that. The way Gris-Gris held your face with his paws and whined, wiggled and squirmed as he lay in the parking lot, smelled you for the first time in a year, he told you he recognized YOU, any outside changes, he didn't care.