Friday, May 27, 2011

Washing My Face in Agnes Bay

It’s 9 pm.  The boat spins around its anchor in a cold easterly breeze.  We’re listening to the distant calls of orcas on the hydrophone.  We followed them – more than thirty whales in four families – for seven hours today.  We watched a pair of juveniles killing king salmon, one after another.  It made my mouth water.  One juvenile spy-hopped in front of the bow with a salmon dangling out of its mouth.  Last night, Craig woke again and again to their calls and echolocation clicks blasting through the speaker.  Lying in the bunk, I swear I felt the body of a whale circle the boat.  I heard it breathe.

Agnes Cove is a magical place, a deep rocky basin from which sheer  basalt faces arise.  Steep-sided, you can kayak around its edge, touch the rocks along shore, and not see the bottom beneath you.   Waterfalls snake down the nearly vertical slopes, carrying snowmelt.  The landscape is raw, the forest rooted in thin soil, the rocks blocky and scraped looking, and I’ve only seen one bear scanning the slopes with binoculars.  But the sea is a different story.  Anchored in Agnes, a humpback, minke, orca, sea otter, river otter, sea lion or harbor seal is bound to appear off the bow.  Kayaking, you glide past dozens of pairs of marbled murrelets, their peep contact calls signaling across the water.  “I’m here.”  “I’m over here.”   I hold still, see how close I can drift to a pair, watch them turn nervously, peep more frequently, then duck under water with a flip of their tail feathers, sending up a miniature spray of water and a flash of white murrelet butt. 

Right now, a few hundred feet up, the north-facing mountainside is still heavily patched with snow.  Last night, seven husky river otters chuffed along the bay’s rim.  They galumphed up a sheer rock face into the woods, and we watched them through binoculars rolling on the moss, grooming, then humping up into the forest, following one another single file down another rock face, dropping one by one back into the bay to continue their foray.  Unless you’re agile as an otter or mountain goat, hiking around Agnes Bay means halting, awkward climbing, sometimes on all fours, hauling yourself up using tree limbs, trying not to grab Devil’s club.  I’m still sporting a Devil’s club tattoo on my right inner wrist, some red patches and a black pinprick, the price for gathering Devil’s club shoots for quiche.  I talk to Devil’s club when I’m climbing through a thicket of it.  “You don’t have to be so mean,” I say.  “I’m being careful.”  It’s probably not the right approach.  But like an alcoholic, Devil’s club is moody, impossible to predict which words will soothe or incite on any particular day.  I step gingerly between its spindly stalks, trying not to touch or snag them in the cloth of my pants, but also out of superstition.  Years ago, I told my step-daughter Eve, when she was a little girl, that Devil’s club lashed out when you were mean to it.  It was one of those days Craig and I had to cajole her off the boat in the rain and wind for a hike, and a patch of Devil’s club we found ourselves wandering in was her proof of  the unfairness of it all.  Her face red and tear- and rain-streaked, dwarfed by the hood of her jacket, she kicked at the plant with her rubber boot.  I don’t think I convinced her of Devil’s club’s vindictive personality that day, only myself.  Maybe it’s more like a shaman than an alcoholic.  It is, after all, one of the most potent medicinal plants of Alaska.  (And I hope by that I appease the Devil’s club gods for my disparaging remarks).  I stare at my wrist.  The mark seems to throb.

This evening, two large male sea lions appeared just off the bow.  They floated on their sides, just under the surface of jade-green water, turning their heads, giving the boat the once-over.  I dangled my legs over the side and they startled, then surfaced off the stern, went right back to lolly-gagging.   “Hello,” I said.  Each visitation – river otter, marbled murrelet, harlequin duck, harbor seal sea lion, orca – is a held breath, a stopped clock.   For me, to be witnessed, to be seen by a wild animal, is to be given confirmation that I’m truly alive.   Nothing about me matters but presence.  One awareness meets another in a secluded cove.  The animal sees me; therefore I am.  In that moment, all my ideas of self dissolve.  “I am” means only that.  I’m “hello.”  Like the peeps of marbled murrelets.  “I’m here.”  I’m eyes looking into eyes.  The sea lions chuffed their breaths, turned upside down languorously.  I breathed. 

Later, in my kayak, I combed the shoreline looking for a snowmelt stream from which I could fill my water bottles.  Tank water on a boat tastes like it sounds.  So any chance I get, I gather water from a fast-rushing stream or even a trickle whose source is a mountain top, water filtered through moss, muskeg, spruce forest, rock.  I compare the taste of different sources, some sweeter, some more acidic.  One dry summer out in Prince William Sound, I even drank from muskeg rivulets, and after four months, my teeth were stained tan from tannin, and the dentist had to polish it off.  Come to think of it, the same thing happened last summer, from chemo.  Like Devil’s club, I consider drinking mountain water good medicine.  Unlike Devil’s club, streams don’t leave me with imbedded spines, only aching cold hands, a sensation I love.  Like being looked at by a wild animal, my hands or face or body in cold mountain water tells me I’m alive.  I’ve taken showers under waterfalls in Prince William Sound, my arms a tight criss-cross over my chest, my head duck, my breath held, released in a yelp or whoop or scream with the first douse, and afterward, skin jangling, as though electrified.  In college, I tried various illicit substances.  Not one produced a high like a frigid waterfall shower or a plunge in deep green North Pacific Ocean water. 

A slight swell made its way into Agnes Cove, creating a surge.  The sea rose up and down the steep rock sides of the bay like a lung.  Little waterfalls slipped down the rocks, but there was no place safe to get out.  Water, water everywhere.  My thirst grew.  I kayaked into a tiny cove just a little more protected by a rock out in its middle.   There, the sea floor shallowed a bit from perpetual rock slides, so I could land.  Looking for the best place, I almost drifted right into a harbor seal, a silver-headed, whiskered old man of the sea with eyes black and round as ink droplets,  who popped up right off my bow, but didn’t startle.  Just stared.  Then sank, twisted his pale, speckled body, and drifted beneath the kayak, looking up as he passed.  He surfaced on the other side of me, just a few feet away.  His eyes looked right into mine.  “Hello old man,” I said.  He ducked down, twirled around me under the water again.  For five minutes, we regarded each other.  He danced beneath me.  I spun my kayak.  “I can’t do that,” I said, “it’s true.  I see it.  Only you can move like that.”  Craig, in his kayak, appeared around the rock, and I signaled for him to stop.  The seal swam over to him, repeated his gestures.  Then Craig kayaked back to the boat, the seal following, and I clambered up the steep, grassy face to the waterfall.  From the matted, tan grass, fiddleheads unfurled by the hundreds.   Perhaps the sting of Devil's club is no different than the ache of cold water or the regard of a seal.  I knelt down and held my hands under the water until I felt in every cell of my body the force of my life confirmed by the force of the life of the mountain.  I dipped a canteen into a pool and drank and drank.  I leaned down and washed my face.



       

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mix Tape for Lauren: Behold the Pain Become the Pearl



One love,
One heart,
Let’s get together and feel all right.

May 24

We're heading out from Seward on the boat, motoring slowly toward Agnes Bay, where the orcas congregate this time of year to feast on the first runs of king salmon.  Craig's on his back on the cabin floor doing bicycles, trying to work off a weekend of graduation feasting (no fresh king salmon for us, alas, only frozen red salmon we brought down with us).  A lovely clear morning with a few mares’ tails suggests the next weather front approaching from the west.  The big low is still spinning in the Bering Sea, throwing off its satellites of wind and rain.  We woke this morning to frost on the boat's deck.

Before graduation on Sunday, our little family entourage met at the Patisserie, a coffee shop and French bakery and favorite Whitman student and faculty hang-out.  As we sat in the sun sipping green tea, Akka, Elli's grandmother, and I talked about books.  We discovered that we both love The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiensen, which chronicles his pilgrimage (in the company of the wildlife biologist George Schaller) in the Himalaya after the death of his wife from cancer.  That led to a discussion of books that convey biology or nature in a way that melds heart and spirit, and I brought up The Emperor of All Maladies.  "Did you really read that book?" Akka asked me.  "How did you bring yourself to do it?"  She said she couldn't imagine herself reading it.  (As I wrote in a previous post, she was treated for early breast cancer several years ago).  I had to think a moment.  The best answer I could come up with was that for me, the unknown is more frightening than the known.  “I was so scared after cancer treatment,” I said.  “I guess knowing all I can about cancer’s biology (or biography as Mukjerhee puts its) helps put the fear into a manageable box.”

Thinking about it now (it’s May 24 and we’re anchored in Agnes Cove, in outer Resurrection Bay, and it’s raining), I see that cancer’s entry into my life scared me the way the Devil scared me as a child.  That’s right, with a capital D.  (40 years later, he’s been, I’m happy to write, demoted to lower case:  devil).  Raised a Catholic, coming of age during the Cold War, two monsters kept me up all night:  the Devil and nuclear war.  The idea of Lucifer was the cold claw reaching up from under the bed, the humped figure in the closet, the shadow on the wall.  When I was ten or so, my oldest brother Andy came home from his first semester at Notre Dame.  I adored my brothers and missed them intensely when they were away.  I counted the days down to their college vacations.  Their leaving the nest was my first sensation, I think, of grief.  I can still feel the big empty of walking into our house after school, knowing they were gone again. 

So that night, put to bed as always at some (I thought) ridiculously early hour, I snuck into the hallway and listened to my brother tell my parents about seeing The Exorcist.  They were sitting around the kitchen table.  He and all of his Catholic friends, guys who worked at the Notre Dame fire station and played basketball, had been so traumatized by the film, some had slipped rosaries under their pillows after seeing it.  It wasn’t the gruesome scenes I heard him describe that implanted a terror so immediate and deep I stashed my own rosary under my pillow that very night, but my brother’s fear that impacted me.  He’d always seemed fearless.  When I’d told him of my anxiety about nuclear war and my insomnia, he’d explained the concept of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD as it was known.  A rationalist even then, my brother expected I’d take comfort from the mad idea that the U.S. and Russian presidents were rational, and wouldn’t launch a nuclear strike knowing it meant certain annihilation.  I had a more tentative relationship with the rational.  At night, my brain examined all the ways the irrational could subvert the rational and put someone’s finger on the red button.  Maybe it was a premonition of cancer.  Cancer ignores the concept of mutual assured destruction, come to think of it.  If cancer kills you, its own destruction is assured, but it does it anyway.

Andy obviously got over his Devil fear pretty quickly.  That summer he bought the soundtrack to The Exorcist, Mike Oldfield’s creepy Tubular Bells, and played it incessantly in our basement.  The Exorcist haunted me for years, even though I never saw the movie.  Just the idea of it overturned all of my notions of safety.  In Catholic school, I’d learned to believe that prayer and goodness and sacraments could protect me.  But those things didn’t, I eventually learned. And The Exorcist drove it home:  evil could take over an innocent child, just because she played with a Ouija board.  (And it didn’t help that my friend Elise, four years older and into the occult, introduced me to the Ouijia board.  When we asked it it’s name, it spelled out “Lucifer.  When we asked it if it wanted one of us kids sitting around the table, the plastic dial drifted to the letter “E” and stuck there, unable to decide:  Elise or Eva?  Coincidentally, decades later, both of us got breast cancer in our 40's.

See how irrational I can be?  Maybe that’s why I read The Emperor of All Maladies.  My warped imagination can make cancer out to be an even more hideous monster than it already is.  So I’ll switch gears now, to prayer, the age-old antidote to devil-fear.  For me, running is a prayer, and so is music.  

Running yesterday morning, before we left the dock, I listened to my I-Pod and thought of Lauren, my friend on the Cape who’s getting her second chemo treatment this week.  Last night, she held her first “healing circle” at her house.  The ride’s rough for her now, I know.  She and her husband and daughter are in the center of the cancer treatment vortex.  A toxic drug is the first in the oncologist/exorcist’s arsenal, one that I know can feel like the devil itself, instead of an ally.  That’s where healing circles come in.  I know too, that all the support you know is there, when you’re in that lonely place, bald and sick, scared and angry, is sometimes no more than a notion.  It’s like you’re flying high above the earth, alone in a capsule of suffering, and you know that 35,000 feet below you is a cushion, a white, billowed, lit-from-within cumulous cloud of love and prayer and friendship and energy.  It’s carrying you even in those moments when the phone won’t ring and the nausea won’t relent and the fear won’t back down.  And that tiny scrap of knowing is all you have, because you are so far up, and feel so far removed from what I called during chemo “the land of the living.”

So I ran thinking of Lauren, and the first song playing in my ear was “Stand By Me,” the version from the amazing CD Playing for Change, sung by a blind New Orleans musician, “Grandpa,” in overalls accompanying himself on a washboard.  “When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light you see.  Well I won’t be afraid, no I won’t shed no tear, just as long as you stand by me.”  That’s the point of the healing circle too.  I wish it were enough, but I know it isn’t always.  Sometimes you’re still afraid, you still shed buckets of tears.  But the healing circle still stands there, below you, holding the edges of that cloud.  I ran along the shore of Resurrection Bay on the bike path as the song played, past the early arrival RV’s parked on the gravel, past the tents in the public park, past a fishing boat floating on the bay to my left, and remembered my own healing circle, and imagined myself among those surrounding Lauren.

“One Love,” the Bob Marley song, came next.  “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right.”  I thought then of Willa, the woman I’d met at Elli’s graduation this past weekend, at a party.  A Washington, D.C. lawyer about my age, she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, the early type called DCIS, three weeks earlier.  Everyone had cleared out of the kitchen to sit in the evening sun on the deck, but Willa and I stayed and talked.  Our common experience of cancer sliced away several layers of social barrier that exist most of the time between strangers.  Within minutes we were talking bodies, fears, and breasts.  In Willa I could see the rational and irrational, known and unknown, dancing their dance as she faced all her unanswered questions.  She kept saying, “I know I’m just at the beginning.  I know nothing.  You must think I’m so na├»ve.”  But I didn’t think that.  She already knew too much. 

There’s no threshold to breast cancer.  You don’t enter gradually.  You’re pushed off the ledge.  I recognized Willa as a sister, a fellow pilgrim, through the fear and uneasy hope in her eyes.  I thought of all of the strangers I’d encountered before and during treatment, women who’d been through every kind of breast cancer:  DCIS, triple-negative, Her/2/Neu positive, sarcoma, metastatic.  It didn’t matter what kind, what stage, we were all citizens of that “other place,” as Joan Didion put it.  Cancerland.  Tumortown (Christopher Hitchens’ moniker).  We found each other at coffeeshops, in yoga classes, in hospital waiting rooms, at parties, in the dog park.  Those women, last year, recognized where I was, and they gave me everything they could.   Our connection was not just the fact of cancer, however.  It was  “one love, one heart,” cancer’s greatest enemy, and our strongest healing elixir.  In Bob Marley’s song, it’s the “father of creation,” from which cancer has “no hiding place.”  It’s the flashlight shined under the bed to reveal no monster, only a dozing cat.   We shine that flashlight for one another.  We get together and, despite our fear, “feel all right” in our commonality.

Not that The Emperor of All Maladies -- which, like all knowledge, is another kind of flashlight in the darkness -- revealed cancer to be any less of a monster to me.  It portrays cancer as a force worthy of an exorcist, a continually morphing, possessing devil.  You think it vanquished in the last film, but then comes Exorcist II, or The Entity, or any number of knock-offs.  The beast arises in sequel after sequel, with new powers.  You cut off his legs and he grows fins.  You cut off his ugly head and he grows an uglier one.  Only with knives, poisons, beams of radiation, and chemicals can he finally be beaten back in the body.  But in the heart and spirit, he’s already dead.  “One love, one heart.”  No matter our diagnosis, prognosis, stage, receptor status, grade, we can be that for one another, that flashlight.  In the beam of its moment, standing in a kitchen at a party, we’re already healed, even for just an hour.

The next song:  I don’t know the title or singer, but it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know, with sitars, and drums, and guitars, and a man singing in English along with an Indian chanter wailing in the background.  My brother Andy introduced me to it, told me it was part of the Dead Man Walking soundtrack (You might be thinking that my brother is attracted to grim movies with haunting soundtracks).  I listened to it incessantly on the road trip I took before I landed at my sister’s house last spring.  Before I was diagnosed.  When unconsciously I knew but didn’t want it to be true.  “We all walk the long road – cannot stay.  There’s no need to say goodbye.  All the friends and family, all the memories going round, round, round.”  At this point in the run, I entered the woods, along the edge of Mount Marathon,  a trail through a mossy forest.  I belted the words out.   The song’s not a song, but a prayer.  I stopped when a red squirrel scolded me from a branch tip, a few feet away.  “We all walk the long road,” I sang to it.  I sang to Lauren.  “How I wished for so long.  How I wish for you today.”

When the trail broke from the trees,  I sang Emmy Lou’s “The Pearl.”  A most amazing prayer.

Well the dragons are gonna fly tonight.
They’re circling low and inside tonight.
It’s another round in the losing fight
Out along the great divide tonight.

We are raging soldiers in an ancient war.
Seeking out some half-remembered shore.
We drink our fill and still we thirst for more.
Asking if there’s no heaven, what is this hunger for?

Our path is worn,
Our feet are poorly shod.
We lift up our prayer against the odds.
And fear the silence is the voice of God.

And we cry alleluiah.  Alleluiah.  We cry alleluiah.

So there’ll be no guiding light for you and me.
We are not sailors lost out on the sea.
We were always heading toward eternity.
Hoping for a glimpse of Galilee.
Like falling stars from the universe we’re hurled
Through the long loneliness of the world
Until we behold the pain become the pearl.

Crying alleluiah.  Alleluiah.  We cry alleluiah.

(I no longer fear the silence is the voice of God.  I know it is).

Here's a link to Emmylou singing it:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbXBYaujTG8
 
Know thine enemy.  That's one strategy.  But equally valid is finding each other on our way.   We’re on that long road together.  We’re crying alleluiah.  Living as if cancer is no devil, no god.  Standing by each other.  Witnessing how we’re hurled, how we fall, until we become pearls, the beads on our own rosaries, our own prayers, our own saviors, our own reliefs, elixirs and cures.  You and me.  Together. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

I'm lying on a bed in a funky motel room in Walla Walla, Washington, taking a break from the social whirl of my step-daughter Elli's graduation weekend.  We arrived yesterday morning after all-night flights to the heart of spring.  The trees are in full bloom:  horse chestnuts, cottonwoods (their fluff drifting up like snow beneath them), dogwoods, crabapples, cherries, lilacs and many I can't name.  Rolling green wheat fields, faded and decrepit barns, grain silos, tiny western-style towns of brick-facaded buildings surrounding this small college city, which contains an uneasy mix of private school students (many from affluent families) and locals (Latino farm workers, service industry workers, vineyard and winery workers).  SUVs wait, tail gates open wide, beside brick and ivy dorms, ready to receive boxes and bikes and computers and yoga mats and blenders and clothes.  Local kids in basketball shorts and sleeveless t-shirts pedal by, two to a  bike. Separate worlds.  It's a bit like the orcas I study:  mammal eaters and fish eaters inhabiting the same waters but occupying the habitat in entirely different ways, and never intermingling.

I was thinking about those orcas yesterday.  For one thing, I'm reading a book called Living Downstream:  A Scientist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber.  A breast cancer survivor, Steingraber writes, among other things, about the links between DDT, PCB's and breast cancer.  And these are the same contaminants born by the the whales I've studied for half of my life.  I'm writing a book about a tiny population of orcas, mammal-eaters called the "AT1's," endemic to Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords.  For five summers, I followed them intensively for my master's thesis, and I still observe them every summer.  Half died after the oil spill in 1989.  Now there are only seven left:  Marie, Iktua, Mike, Chenega, Egagutak, Ewan and Paddy.  When people ask me about the book I'm writing, I say that I'm trying to "personalize" a coming extinction.  I'm telling their story, the part I know, but the book's also about silence, about healing, about science, and about myself.  Last summer, the first field season I've missed in 24 years, I got to follow Chenega for a time by logging onto a satellite tracking website.  Craig had tagged her, and each morning, I woke up on Cape Cod and opened my computer to see where she was.  When I worked on the book last summer, my own experience with breast cancer twined itself around each word.  We seemed in a new way joined together.  One afternoon last fall, this is what I wrote:

When I’m afraid of the cancer returning to steal my life, I meditate on the AT1s, as I did before each chemotherapy treatment.  They have something to teach me, this family of secretive orcas living secret lives in a remote place, each breath bringing them closer to extinction.  I’m certain they remember their dead, Eyak and Eccles, Kaj and her family, Icy and Bergie, and that some days, when they blast their calls north up the Passage, they listen for an answer.  But I’m equally certain that, though they carry their losses encoded inside their enormous hearts, the remaining seven live acutely every minute; though they dance with death every day, they don’t dwell on death for an instant.  Every moment, they are aware of the place they’ve chosen, present to every bleat, wave lap, squeak, outboard drone, light dapple, echolocation click, water current, cloud shadow, hydrocarbon molecule, basalt face of whatever cove or passage they’re in right now.  Whether they know they’re dying out or not, they’re completely present and completely alive, and they will be, even the second before they die.  In the end, they teach me how to live.  They are alive forever inside me.  The poet and philosopher Mark Nepo, a cancer survivor, writes “I danced with death.  Death backed off.”  When the day comes that not one AT1 hunts along the coastline of Prince William Sound, I will grieve and carry on.  But I will bind my heart to this belief:  though their language in the physical world may be lost, the gods they were will continue singing.  They will sing in the wind rippling along the water of Squire Cove, in the splash of a seal ducking into a kelp bed at the head of Copper Bay, navigating through channels between ice floes off the glacier named Tiger Tail.  That language will never be lost. 

I'm writing about them today also because walking back from a breakfast gathering at Elli's professor's house this morning, I talked to her boyfriend Peter about my book project.  He's graduating too, with a degree in Environmental Humanities.  He's also a musician.  And a writer.  And he loves to work with plants.  And to read.  He told me that even at a small liberal arts college like Whitman, students already get specialized into their majors, and they poke fun at each other:  the ones that live in the "art house" vs. the ones who live in the environmental studies house, for instance.  Everyone's already divided up into camps.  Like Peter, I understand the world better when I read poems and write and collect data and play music and talk philosophy and watch birds all at the same time.

I have to admit that I've felt a little jealous watching all of Elli and Peter's friends these last two days, imagining and remembering that sense of a whole life about to unfold, moving forward into the unknown, into possibility.  When I left college and headed north, driving with my boyfriend to Alaska, I was too immersed in the immediacy of the experience to take stock of myself on that threshold.  I bounced between possibility and guilt at leaving my family and pure fear.  Maybe the point of a commencement weekend, though, is not for the older generation to stand back and watch and remember and get all nostalgic, but to participate, to embark also.  Perhaps it's a wake-up call.  The moving-on after breast cancer is a threshold not unlike a college graduation, come to think of it.  And there are so many others.  This weekend, I've spent time with Elli's grandmother Anne, whom we call Akka, her mother's mom, who is 82, another person who embodies the idea of commencement.  Several years ago she too had early breast cancer.  And recently she lost her beloved, her soul mate, a man named Johnny.  Walking two miles along a stream with her, talking about writing and travel and books, she wasn't, to me, a breast cancer survivor or a widow or even a grandmother.  She was a woman fully alive in the present moment.  This spring, her son took her to India with a small group led by a Hindu meditation teacher.  And this summer, she's coming to Alaska.  The death of one's life partner must be another forced commencement.  Perhaps a college or high school graduation is preparation for those future "end of the world as we know it" moments, ones even scarier than launching out from the nest of home and school.  Life, it seems, is one world ending after another.  But as the Haitian proverb states, "Behind the mountains, there are more mountains."

That REM song's been running through my mind all day, after Craig reminded me that it came and went:    the end of the world, as predicted by preacher Camping.  But maybe it did end.  And it's just a bit more subtle and under cover than we assumed.  It's the end of the world as we know it, the song goes.  I know Elli and Peter and all of their friends must feel that right now.  Maybe we all should, every night before sleep, whisper to ourselves that line.  I think about those orcas, whose world changed "in the instant," as Joan Didion put it in The Year of Magical Thinking.  Some didn't make it.  The ones who survived swam across the threshold and occupied the new world, damaged as it was, opening out before them.

Writing that last section, I remember a Mary Oliver poem, so I'll end with it.  It refers to that "end of the world as we know it" for which all of the things I mentioned here, including "the big C," are but preparations.  The really big one.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Those orcas, they are my teachers in this.  Those remaining seven will not disappear "simply having visited this world."

All of the wild places are my university.  And this weekend, these wild 21 year-olds, and one wild 82 year-old:  they are my teachers, too.  May we all be teachers and students for one another.

Happy End of the World!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Mother of Storms

A stormy day on the Alaskan coast.  The weather-maker in the Aleutians, the great low pressure center that births storms and spins them east, has been busy lately.  It delayed and then canceled our research trip on the boat to Resurrection Bay.  Tonight, we fly to Pasco, Washington, for my step-daughter Elli's college graduation (from Whitman, in Walla Walla), carrying Alaskan salmon, rhubarb and potatoes for a potluck picnic.  I can't say I'm not thankful to the Bering Sea for the weather this week, for this respite at home, this chance to tie up loose ends, finish my semester's work with my graduate students, see friends, clear the old canes from the raspberry patch, pull some weeds from the grass-choked flower garden.  One year without the person who tends it, and it's so overgrown, I'm just about ready to throw up my hands, be happy with the native fireweed, jewelweed, nettles and grass that's taking over.

The strawberries don't care, as my step-daughter, Eve, pointed out yesterday (she's an organic farmer).  They're happiest growing up through gravel.  The berries hidden in tall grass taste sweetest.  Some things just want to be left alone.  Sometimes all the fuss and cultivation actually stunt ripening.  Maybe healing's a bit like that.

Today is Craig's birthday, and Eve and her fiance Eivin came over for breakfast, and as they were leaving, we spotted a snowshoe hare nibbling on the new, green grass beside the walkway.  True homesteaders who try to live off the land as much as possible, they talked about their freezer full of rabbit, as Homer's been overrun this winter with hares, and we worried together over holes in garden fences, and the damage one of these big white-footed scrappers could do to one's broccoli and cabbage in just one night.  Eve and Eivin are Mr. and Mrs. McGregor when it comes to protecting their farm, but still we all admired the hare's beautiful brown coat, its long white feet, the delicate way it nibbled the grass.  There are bunnies (which induce baby-talk), and there are hares (which are wild), and there are rabbits (which go in the freezer), and sometimes one animal is all three.  It was nice to see that Eve still loves all of them.  Now that the greenery's up, at least their less of a threat to our trees.  Yesterday, in the raspberry canes, I studied their teeth marks along so many stalks, chewed all the way through.

I've been thinking this week about how long healing takes.  The writer Joan Didion, in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, writes:  "Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."  She's referring to the sudden death of her husband.  Then she writes, "The question of self-pity."  Those were the first words she wrote after it happened.  The name of the computer file was "notes on change."  It's true that disaster -- the diagnosis, the car wreck, the fall, the tsunami -- are often earthquake sudden.  The healing, one the other hand, is glacial, geologic, like tectonic drift.  "Life changes in the instant.  The ordinary instant."  She says, "For a long time I wrote nothing else."

Spring is slow this way too, here in Homer, it keeps pace with internal change.  You can't live here, be a content person, and not be patient with spring.  You put your hands in the earth, and find ice lenses six inches under.  You put your starts in the greenhouse one 70 degree sunny day and worry about frost at night.  You stare at the peony root wad and see only death, and not until May 19 do you see a few maroon shoots.  Only now are the hares completely brown.  What's it like for your fur to change color twice a year without your doing?

This week, it's been hard to accept both the slowness of my evolution and the evolution itself.  I've changed, I know, but I haven't caught up with it.  I run after myself, try to grab a sleeve to turn myself around, to face myself, to figure out just what's different.  I see that it's different in my social life.  The books say friendships change after breast cancer.  This is painful to accept.  In my case, it's acute because I left for my treatment, so with many people there's a discontinuity, a year-long segment of our friendship snipped away.  And perhaps the habit of my not being here.  Of course there were calls and cards and my e-mail updates.  But in relationships, we change together, day by day.  How do I express who I am now when I don't even know completely?

Each day is something of a miracle to me, but at the same time, each day is an ordinary to-do list, for me, and for those I love, and we have to schedule each other in.  So there's things that remain unchanged by a discontinuity, by breast cancer.  And that's too part of the ordinary miracle, that it's nothing special.  I'm back, and we take for granted, my friends and I, that we'll see one another, next week, or the week after.  And we live that way.  As if it's the case.  Part of life in the land of the well is exactly that.  Part of me welcomes it.  And part of me wants to call out:  "Wait, something really BIG happened to me.  Everything's different.  These greens, don't you see how they've changed?  I never noticed the way leaves on the May tree grow upright, like the claws of a dead bird lying on its back, did you?  Wait, I want to tell you about where I went, what happened to me there, I want to see it reflected back to me in your eyes.  Wait."  But there's no waiting.

At the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes:  "I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.  Nor did I want to finish the year.  The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.  I look for resolution and find none."  Everyone in her life, surely, wants this not to be so, wants to see her "move on."  But that's no comfort to her.  "I was crossing Lexington Avenue when this occurred to me.  I know why we try to keep the dead alive:  we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.  I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead."  It's that way with me, in a funny way.  The me back there, before diagnosis, the me just after, the ever-evolving me now, perhaps new, perhaps even "birthed," as my friend Jo says, like one of those storms, shed out of my own swirling Bering Sea of a life.  I want to keep them all alive.  In some way, I want to remain in the lonely center of that storm.  It's there, where I faced (I struggle over which tense to use, present, past) death, that I feel the most alive.

And in writing, and perhaps nowhere else, do I find that center, again and again.        

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mouth to Earth Resuscitation: Part 5, Giddy on Eternity




The last installment from Prince William Sound.  This post was written on the date of my surgery, the one year anniversary.  The day before we left the Sound, Craig and I hiked on Squire Island, behind "Whale Camp."  I spent some time with "King Tree," the large hemlock above the camp, another of the places I imagined going during my cancer treatment.  I probably imagined King Tree most often, as I could so easily visualize everything there, down to individual blueberry bushes.  Before my step-daughter Elli went off to college for the first time, she made a wreath, wrote a letter to King Tree, put it in a baggie and attached it to the wreath.  She hung the wreath on a low branch on the tree, in thanks for her childhood summers in Prince William Sound.  We've all leaned on King Tree, all of us who've spent time at Whale Camp.  And I leaned heavily on King Tree last year.  So it felt magical to climb the mossy bluff above the pond to reach it, to see Elli's wreath still hanging there, to sit with my back against the massive trunk in the spot I imagined myself sitting.  I had several meditation CDs by a woman named Bellaruth Naparstak, one for surgery, one for chemo, one for radiation, one for insomnia, and in all of them, she tells you to imagine a place where you feel completely safe, to "look to your right, and then to your left," to notice the sounds, the smells, the textures.  After awhile, she says, you notice a sensation that "something magical is about to happen."  And then there's a light, or a circle of helpers, and the meditation proceeds from there.  I watched the sunlit patches of moss.  But I didn't need to wait for that sensation.  In Prince William Sound, something magical -- healing -- is always about to happen.  It has just happened.  It is happening right now.  Now and forever amen.

12 May
We just pulled our shrimp pots (with several jumbo shrimp inside) and are heading toward Prince of Wales Passage, leaving the Sound by the same geographical route by which we arrived, but in other ways, leaving in a very different place inside.  There’s always a shift that happens after about a week in the Sound, when “town life” fades in significance, when I don’t care if I wear the same clothes every single day as long as those clothes keep me dry and warm.  I don’t care if my hair’s flattened against my head.  In this part of the Sound, Knight Island Passage, we don’t get cell phone reception, and that urgency of maybe missing a call disappears too.  And at some point, paddling up to the boat in the kayak, it always happens, I feel I could live here.  A primal part of myself wakes up, the part that’s linked to the animals.  It helps when the weather’s as good as it’s been the last few days, sunny, with a stiff north wind.  So you can turn your face one way and feel a brisk cold brushing your skin, turn another and feel the sun’s heat, squint into its brightness.  The sea’s been a dark indigo blue, the sky clear and extra-blue too, it seems, the way it is in autumn.  It might be because the muskegs are still russet-brown and tan, so there’s the intensification of color against color.  Since the orca sightings are slim this time of year in this part of the Sound, and since it’s too windy to work in Hinchinbrook Entrance, we’ve relaxed into just being here, hiking twice a day, climbing up bluffs and lying down on the ground or doing yoga barefoot in the sun.

And now we’re heading south down Fleming Channel.  Fleming Island is on the left, and every time we pass through here (which is often, as this was, in the past, a favorite killer whale haunt), I think of George Fleming, who grew up on that small island, farming foxes with his family.  George’s parents once left the kids on the island while they delivered pelts to Green Island, about ten miles away, and their skiff capsized in Montague Strait.  They made it to Montague Island, but didn’t get back to Fleming and the kids for a month or more.  I think about those kids; they must have imagined their parents dead.  They probably knew enough already to survive on their own, but still, how they must have stared out across the water, hoping for a sighting of that skiff.  I scan the shorelines with binoculars, picturing George as a boy wandering these beaches, hunting or beach-combing or just poking around, following a set of bear tracks, startling at blows just off the shore.  Looking up to see four fins slipping into the water, four vapor trails dissolving.  The whales we see today would be the direct descendents of those whales.  The Flemings are long gone, though, and no matter how hard I’ve looked, I’ve never seen a trace of their fox farm.  Only the trees would remember them.  George was still alive and living in the Sound when Craig started doing research here, and we have a picture of him framed on our bookshelf in the living room.  He looks like a gnome, with a craggy face and long gray beard and woolen clothes.  He was a bit of a hermit, a man of the woods.  The legend is that once he left the Sound by way of Whittier, to see Anchorage.  But he turned around before he got there, returned to the Sound and never left again.  He wanted to die in the Sound, but by the time he was a very old man, he lived in Mummy Bay, helping out around a lodge and former herring saltery, a slave to a legendary character (some say madame), an enormous woman named Marla.  He got so sick she brought him to Cordova, to the hospital.  Cordova’s in the eastern Sound, but it wasn’t the real Sound to George, and it broke many people’s hearts that he died in Cordova, something he didn’t want.  So friends brought his ashes back to Fleming Island.  
I arrived in the Sound a few years too late to know George.  But there’s a part of me that gets woken up when I’m out here for any length of time, a few molecules of George.  Just now we scooped up a big piece of glacier ice with our net, and I broke off a corner and put it in a cup of water I collected from a stream on Squire Island, and I’m drinking it right now.  Perhaps it was windy, blowing easterly, the day they scattered George’s ashes, and one flake got away, got gusted up and over the low hump of Bainbridge Island, whirled and tumbled across Whale Bay, cleared the next ridge into Icy Bay, landed finally on the Tigertail Glacier.  Thirty years later, one late spring, suspended within the ice, it calved off with part of the glacier’s face and plunged into the fjord.  The tide pushed that piece of ice along, and the sea water and May sun melted it.  It spun and drifted to the northern shore of Fleming Island, and on the 12th of May, 2011, a woman leaned over the side of a boat and caught it in a net and hauled it aboard.  And she’s drinking that flake of George down now, and it becomes a part of her bones.

Last night, we hiked up the muskegs above Squire Cove, a place we call Blueberry Hill, because it’s a favorite stormy day berry picking spot come August.  As we climbed, we ate a few blueberry flowers, which are sweet, like rose water.  Near the top, we scared up a short-eared owl, the first I’ve seen in the Sound.  We wandered around looking for signs of deer and bears, and then we started back down.  We paused and sat on a rock, and I asked Craig, “Do you want your ashes scattered on the water or on the land?”  I knew that we’d both talked about Sanctuary Bay being the place.  “I guess water would be fine,” Craig said.  It wasn’t the first time I’d hiked in that particular place on Squire Island in late evening and thought, “This is where I want my ashes scattered.”  But I couldn’t imagine being apart from Craig like that.  “I think I’d want half in Sanctuary Bay, and half here,” I said.  “That sounds like a good plan,” Craig said.  You might think it's morbid, what with the owl sighting and last year’s cancer and all, but it didn’t feel that way to me.  It felt natural.  There’s something about this part of the Sound for us that erases the idea that death's an enemy, the anti-life.  This place is a long drink of cold water from a stream, a blueberry pie, sweet shrimp fried in a pan, a bluff top from which you can see two humpback whales thrashing their flukes five miles away, the way you can lie back in the muskeg, a cold wind on one cheek, the sun on the other, and fall asleep on a bed of reindeer lichen.  And it's also a scattering of fawn bones in the moss, the wings of a murrelet under a hemlock tree.

During cancer treatment, two different people, one my counselor Wilderness, and one Hester, the social worker at Beth Israel Hospital, asked me to name my deepest fears in regards to cancer.  The first time, with Wilderness, I broke down.  She said, “You have cancer, Eva.  Of course death is there.  If you push the fear of death away, it will only get bigger.  What exactly about death scares you the most?”  She asked me to imagine a “good death,” and what that would be like.  As I talked my way through what seemed a thicket of anguish and terror, I circled around to a story about a solitary kayak paddle in the inner lagoon of Sanctuary Bay, years ago.  It was raining that time, mist rising off the water, the mountains obscured by clouds, dozens of waterfalls crashing down around me.  I filled my water bottles from the same stream I filled them from the other night, and afterwards, I felt compelled – I don’t know why – to lie face down on the ground, there by the stream.  It was rocky underneath, angular and hard against my torso, but cushioned slightly by matted-down grass.  High tides deposit bits of rock kelp and “sea paper,” an amalgam of algae, on that grass, so it smells green but also like the bottom of the sea.  I breathed it in.  I felt myself dying in that moment, letting go completely into the place.  And it was okay.  "I could die right here, right now," I thought, "and it would be okay."  Some people say that all of living is a preparation for that final, most powerful transformation.  And sure, cancer jump-starts an inner preparation, but at the same time, and even more, it asks me every day to be completely here, completely alive.  And this is the place I feel the most alive.  And it’s also the place I feel unafraid.  My friend David wrote a song out here he calls “Giddy on Eternity,” based on something my step-daughter Eve shouted out after a hike we took to find “Aphrodite’s Garden.”  (We found it).  We were paddling back to the boat in the Zodiac, Eve and her sister Elli wielding the oars, and rather than steering us forward, they spun us in circles.  “I feel giddy!”  Eve cried.  “I’m giddy on eternity!”  Elli and Eve shouted it, laughing, and we joined in.  "We're giddy on eternity!"  That’s how this place makes me feel.  Giddy to be alive, like the short-eared owl, like the Steller’s jay that scolded us off the island last night, like the marbled murrelet pairs flipping their tails up as they dove at the bay’s head.  And giddy on eternity, on the mountains, the rocks, the sand, the water, the glacier, the rocks and bones.  Giddy at the thought that I could be one fleck of ash landing on the back of a deer.  That I can, though today I’m leaving, stay here, always. 
        

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Earth to Mouth Resuscitation, Part 4: 48 Sun Salutations


Evening now.  I'm trying to wrap up these dispatches from Prince William Sound, as we are going out on the boat again tomorrow.  We just returned from a cook out at Bill and Jane's house, on their "lawn" overlooking Kachemak Bay.  Right before we left the party, Doug arrived in his wheelchair, pushed by a friend.  Doug, a welder and former commercial fisherman, was one of Lars' first boat skippers (our son Lars fished on salmon seine boats the past several summers).  A few years back, Doug, an athlete, was diagnosed with ALS, what used to be called Lou Gehrig's disease.  He was/is in his fifties.  
When we got home, Craig and I just sat in the car in the driveway for awhile staring, absorbed in our own thoughts about Doug.  Doug had been wrapped in a warm, faded, plaid pile blanket.  He sipped a gin and tonic from a straw, surrounded by friends around the fire.  All these years of his body's demise, he's been "doing it" with a glow, a radiance, that's like a pool of evening sunlight.  You just want some of it to land on you.  But tonight, he looked different.  I don't know Doug, but I thought about him often last summer, when I was going through my health travails, wondering how he was doing.  He's a part of my small community, but it's more.  That radiance of his, his grace, had moved me.
I know I only saw the public face.  I know there's more.  It's strange to say it, but at times, for instance, at a concert put on by two local young jazz musicians and their teachers, his aura was that of a resurrected man, not a man facing a death sentence.  At the concert a couple years ago, the stand-up bass player, a seventy-something black man who once played with Miles Davis, turned to Doug, who sat in his wheelchair in one of the front tows.  His eyes never left Doug's as he made that bass wail, sing, cry, mourn, defy, rage, die, and rise again.  He improvised an otherworldly music that seemed a language only Doug could understand.  The way they stared at each other:  like the music came to Marcus through Doug's eyes. The rest of us disappeared.  The bassist and Doug were the only ones in the room.  That was when Doug still had his full voice, the use of his hands.  His voice is raspy now; he looks tired.  
Sometimes "doing it" is simply showing up, in the cold wind off the glacier, to sit by a bonfire while a friend directs a straw of gin and tonic toward your thirst, and another offers a spoonful of black beans toward your hunger.  "Can you move my hand over there?" Doug asked a friend.  Raw wind, raw life.  Another broken halleluiah, of broken chords.  Of all the things I witnessed today, that gesture, a friend lifting the mittened hand, tenderly placing it down again, will linger longest.
Now back to the Sound:     
9 May
Evening coming on again.  A clear sky overhead, with a waxing moon close to half full.  We came back around the north end of Montague Island into Montague Strait because of the weather forecast, which predicted an easterly tonight.  But it never materialized.  Tonight we’re anchored in one of my favorite spots, a tiny cove tucked into the center of Green Island.  No wind.  I’m drying sheets of green algae from the clothesline over the stove and on the oven rack.  I peeled it from the rocks on the beach.  I just got back from a hike alone through the woods.  Still now, after dark, a kingfisher chatters (there’s always one here, and often a loon, and regularly seals and sea otters).  Dusky Canada geese nest on Green Island.  It’s a kind of refugia, its shallows supporting all kinds of life, from clams to orcas.  And even though it’s in the middle of wide Montague Strait, which is not a place you want to be in stormy weather, it’s a completely protected anchorage.  The low relief of the forested island doesn’t create the williwaw gusts of the steep-sided bays of Knight Island. 
I beached the kayak and hiked up into a forested peninsula, just a thin finger of island but thickly carpeted in moss.  The trees aren’t as big as those on Montague, but still large enough, too big to wrap my arms even a third of the way around.  I followed deer trails, and gathered devil’s club shoots for tomorrow, which is my birthday.  Kelp, devil’s club, and the cod Craig caught today:  the makings of a feast.  I thought I’d feel safe and relaxed on Green Island, since it doesn’t have brown bears living on it, but I felt strangely unnerved.  Perhaps it was because I was wearing Craig’s glasses, which aren’t quite right for my eyes.  Perhaps it was the intensity of the silence.  The last light shone on the water and on a few small islands across the channel, so I hiked to the edge of the woods to sit against the moss-coated root-shoulders of a hemlock.  

I smelled something acidic, thought it was my imagination.  On the moss where I sat were ropy wads of what looked like owl scat, but filled with deer hair, and the bones of a fish.  I kneeled on the moss and looked down at a few green-winged teal turning in circles near the rock face.  Some movement of mine startled them into flight.  I felt the silence of the place press against me on all sides, press against my ears.  Across the channel, geese cackled, but the silence was separate from that.  It was thick and weighty, like honey.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt a place so alive underneath me, almost breathing, and it scared me a little.  I felt like a trespasser.  I started to wonder if a brown bear could have swum across the channel between Montague and Green Islands.  Or what if a hermit lived on the island, unbeknownst to anyone?  I wanted to find peace in that forest but I felt uneasy.  When I got up, I found the source of the acidic smell:  a pile of some animal’s scat, a rather large pile, wet and filled with fish scales, hemlock needles, and moss.  I poked at it with a stick, held my hand above it checking for warmth.  Luckily, it was cold.  But it smelled acrid and fishy.  I suppose it could have been a large river otter’s scat.  But perhaps a bear did live on the island.
I felt relieved when I stepped out of the forest again.  I stopped often to listen, but heard nothing, no wind, only the trills of a few varied thrushes high in the trees.   Back above the beach, I walked to the forest on the other side, another peninsula.  Again I followed a well-worn deer path and along it found a beautiful antler, walnut brown, and ridged, like a carving.  I carried in my hand like some kind of protection.  Maybe it was night coming on, and being alone, but the uneasy feeling returned once I entered the forest again.  I hiked up a rise and down to the beach on the other side, the beach facing Knight Island Passage.  A pair of oystercatchers scolded me, then settled themselves on their rock. 
The sun had set and the sky above Knight Island was tinted with what seemed like every shade of rose I saw in the Bronx Botanical Garden last summer.  My brother Andy and his wife Kathy took Craig and me to the neighborhood where I was born, along Fordham Road, and we saw our old apartment, and the building where my father worked, and the market in the Italian neighborhood where my mother shopped, and then we walked through the gardens, where my mother and grandmother brought us each day to play.  It was our back yard.  It was our “nature.”  In the sky tonight I saw its roses. 
This is my nature now, this place, and it’s true that in reality, I’ve always been a little bit afraid of it.  I’ve been caught out in storms, lost in the woods, startled by black bears, adrift with a broken down engine.  Hiking in Prince William Sound alone, I’ve always felt watched.  Sometimes it’s been comforting.  I’ve even fallen asleep in muskeg meadows in the rain, tucked up under a mountain hemlock tree no taller than I am.  But often I’ve stopped during my solitary rambles to listen for footfalls, for crashing in the underbrush, and I’ve looked again and again over my shoulder.  I’ve listened hard for voices in the wind brushing the island.  But I’ve never felt the earth itself breathing like a sleeping animal under my body as I did tonight, the ground not solid, but sentient, shifting.  I’ve never felt the silence itself breathing.  Maybe it was being on the boat all day, in the swells.  Or maybe that spot on Green Island was one of the earth’s thin places, the ones the Celts talk about, where the barrier between the material and spirit worlds has worn away. 
It was in this place, Prince William Sound, where, in my early twenties, I took step after step not past my fear, but hand in hand with it, extending my boundaries further into wilderness, further beyond my own limits.  I’ve entered these woods all my adult life with love and trepidation, with relief and tentativeness.  I’ve rarely felt completely safe, except on the boat anchored up in Sanctuary Bay, or here, in the middle of Green Island, or in the kayak, observing that world of the other from the safety of the water.  Or on a sunlit beach.  Perhaps there’s something this place has to teach me now about fear.  Fear on Green Island, like the island itself, was an alive, animal presence. 
Before anchoring here, we hung out all day in Zaikof Bay with the hydrophone down, venturing out to the middle of the Entrance to listen and scan, then retreating out of the swells.  Again we heard very distant AB pod calls.  They must be somewhere north, in the wide open mid-Sound.  We walked this morning on Montague Island, in that forest of ancient trees, coming out at the edge of a muskeg meadow.  Pine siskins surrounded us.  I sang to Hanuman.  We walked along the trail I visualized last summer.  I said to Craig, “This is where I walked with Hanuman.”  We ate salad for lunch, and my friend Mike, the man I described earlier, whose cup hangs at Resurrect Art in Seward, called from his satellite phone, from the Aleutians, to wish me a happy birthday, not only from him, but from two orcas named Floppy and Digger. 
It’s 11:26 pm.  In 34 minutes I’ll be 48, but in many ways, I’m still being born.  I take pictures of myself in the woods and stare at them.  Who are you? I ask.  It’s not just my short hair, which is fine now, and slow-growing, not thick and long and weedy as it was most of my life.  It’s something else in my face.  That person, she knows things I don’t know yet.  I haven’t caught up with her, with where she’s been.  Maybe I followed her into the woods tonight.
May 10
I woke at 4:30 am, got up briefly to sit at the table and read the day’s entry from the Book of Awakening.  A sea otter dove off the bow, up and about, foraging the bottom for clams or crabs or fish.  I liked today’s reading particularly; Nepo writes of being like a bird who rides out storms by finding their calm center. He writes of breathing through metaphorical storms in that way.  He writes about life moving constantly back and forth between storm and calm, between spirit and matter.  I find that daily on the boat.  Some hours are simply grueling, when the seas are rough and we’re running a transect sideways to the swells, or when my body’s aching from inactivity.  Other moments are incandescent, like last night, scary but on the edge of something bigger and more powerful than any narrative detail of my life.  After reading, I crawled back into bed and breathed my way through a storm of thoughts, imagining that calm center within the cyclone of my fears.  And I fell back to sleep.  And woke to Craig heating chai on the stove, an absolutely clear and still morning.  The smell of cinnamon in the chai drifted down to me, and I thought of cinnamon toast, which I made when I got up.  We fried duck eggs, and I stored all the dried seaweed in a jar to send to Lauren.  
The cell phone rang, and it was Lauren, calling from Cape Cod to tell me she had good news.  Her lymph node surgery showed no sign of cancer.  She starts chemo tomorrow.  And then she sang me a birthday song.  You too, I wanted to tell her, are just being born, Lauren.  Out of fire, out of pain, out of grace.  Happy birth day to you. 
Craig and I paddled to shore and walked the beach, riling up the pair of oystercatchers again, then back down the back of the island through the woods.  They were young, scrappy woods, not like the open, mossy pathways of old growth forests.  This woods was thick with blueberry and rusty menzesia brush and young slender spruce trees.  We pushed our way through branches that snapped and slapped us in the face.  Each day, more buds emerge.  More birds arrive.  No hermit thrushes yet, but the woods were alive with song and fox sparrows, varied thrushes, siskins.

And now we’re searching again, motoring slowly down Montague Strait in the sun.  The air’s cold and sharp, but the sun’s warm, a great feeling on the skin, bracing.  Montague Island on this side has snow almost down to the water and is riddled with avalanches mussing up the smooth snowfields flaring from the cornices along its spine.
It’s evening in Lucky Bay.  We dropped two shrimp pots in the bay’s mouth, and we’ll see if we have any luck tomorrow.  In two hours my birthday will be over.  We anchored up and what felt like a final birthday present was the level of the tide, at a perfect height to allow us to kayak down the tidal river in to the lagoon, what my friend David Grimes calls the Sound’s inner sanctum.  The tide floods in and pours out through that river, creating a waterfall.  But at tonight’s high tide, the rocks forming the falls were drowned, and we paddled right in.  It was a great birthday, no whales, but calls from my sister and her family and my brother.  And a cake Craig baked, and fresh cod and red rockfish and steamed broccoli and Devil’s club shoots, with its sharp forest flavor, earth medicine. 
On Point Helen beach, I found a patch of black sand, took off my rubber boots and socks and jacket and did 48 sun salutations, one for each year of my life.  With each one, I called up memories of myself at that age.  Some salutations were a relief to complete, for the hard memories that arose.  The year of my friend’s suicide was one.  The year of my divorce.  I slowed way down for last year’s sequence, giving it ample time to mark its passing, lowered myself slowly as I could to lie face down on the sand.  Three eagles rode the strong northwest wind, twirling above me.  The waves lapped behind me.  The northwest wind buffeted my right side.  My feet dug pits into the black sand.  I wanted to lie on that beach for a long time.  There are black bears on Knight Island.  No human being lives there. I felt safe, at home in the world.  It’s complete.  The Sound has taken me back in.  
        

Earth to Mouth Resuscitation, Part 3: Of Ponytails, Orcas and Tangled Tape

A cool cloudy spring day, but the birds don't know the difference.  They sing just as exuberantly as they did two days ago, when it was sunny and warm.  I just walked up the road with my pockets full of devil's club shoots to put in a woodland quiche, along with watermelon berry sprouts, nettle tips, duck eggs (from our neighbor) and fireweed shoots.  Now if only I could find some fresh morels.  Below is the next installment of my Prince William Sound research trip narrative.  But first a couple photos from a cancer event on Cape Cod the other night, two luminaria, one for me and one for Bennett.  My stepson Lars, who's staying with my sister and family for the next couple weeks took part in the walk.  We're all "doing it," Bennett, me, Lauren, Cathleen, Paula, Helen, and my friend Nancy whom I ran into last night.  She was diagnosed with early breast cancer last year, shortly before I was.  Nancy's an elder, and she was "doing it" at a fundraiser for our non-profit gallery.  Lauren was "doing it" yesterday, getting her hair cut short in anticipation of it falling out, her daughter picking the style.  One week before it's gone, but who cares?  She's the one who told me that she became extremely adept at throwing up and continuing to do what she was doing last time around with breast cancer, namely talking on the phone, saying "excuse me a moment, missing a few beats to barf, then continuing on.  That's what I mean by "doing it."  Living life.  Last night, at the fundraising event, several people I hadn't seen came up to me and asked the "How are you doing now?" question.  It's losing it's charge for me.  Maybe that should be my answer:  "I'm doing it."  One woman told me she had a dream, right after I started chemo last summer, that I was standing in front of her, completely well, and that she felt like she was back in the dream at that moment, that it had come true.  She hugged me and quickly scooted away, teary-eyed.  Now it's time to start "doing it" again:  turning forest greens into quiche.  The literal version of earth to mouth resuscitation.


    

8 May


Evening.  A front’s moved in, and its first squall just enveloped us.  Rain drops bead up on the windows and the boat spins around the anchor.  It’s 9:30 pm and the light’s dim, and I’m hoping, actually, for a weather day tomorrow, a day to write and drink tea and read and don rain gear to kayak to the beach.  We started our day early, eating on the run.  We heard killer whales on the hydrophone first thing, recognized them as AE calls, and we found them not far from our anchorage.  They led us out Hinchinbrook Entrance toward the Gulf of Alaska.  There were twelve of them, including a calf born over the winter, the first calf in AE pod since 2006.  The little whale was sturdy, already sporting a saddle patch behind its dorsal fin.  The youngest calves we see don’t have saddles yet, and their eye patches and bellies are orange.  We threw around ideas for names, and settled, finally, on "Schnipper," after my oncologist and his wife.  After photographing the whales, it was time to take a biopsy.  This is an aspect of the research I dislike, and I made Craig spell out again the how’s and why’s of this year’s effort.  He explained that he and his collaborator Dave Herman, a chemist, wanted samples from one focal animal, an adult male, in each of five pods.  It would be sampled three times over the course of the summer.  From the chemistry of its blubber, the fatty acids and stable isotopes, Herman can describe how an individual whale’s diet changes over time.  I worried about taking biopsies from the same animal repeatedly in one season, concerned that it would begin to associate us with being hit by a dart.  This led to one of our frequent boat arguments, and eventually, it led to a deeper conversation. 
Craig told me that he was still coming to terms with a change in me over the last year, how I take stronger stands around what I do and don’t want to do.  We verbally pushed back and forth against one another until I finally put it into words.  I’m no longer willing to be passive in my life.  It’s not that I want to change or even challenge everything I do since breast cancer.  I just want to choose consciously, even if it means choosing to continue doing what I’ve done in the past.  My default mode, what seems almost an addiction (I’m thinking that word because I’m also, on this boat trip, battling my addiction to chocolate), is to do a complex math in my head when making plans or decisions.  If what I want is X and what other want is Y, and what I need to do to make a living is C, and what I choose in the end is Z, the normal equation is X + 10Y + 5C = Z.  I want to experiment with a new equation, perhaps 10X + 4Y + 4C = Z. 
We followed along with the whales as we had this very involved conversation, waiting for Nowell, the young male Craig had selected to be the “focal animal” for AE pod, to give us an opportunity to collect a sample.  He was busy fishing, surfacing erratically, diving for long periods at a time, and our attempts to predict where he might come up were unsuccessful.  So we hung back and watched and motored slowly south with the whales and talked.  And then, after three hours, we let them go, no sample “in the bag,” just photographs, and another layer of clay carved off the sculpture that is our lives post-cancer. 
Cancer treatment stopped my life as I knew it.  It’s staggering what happens when you stop your life.  It isn’t like pressing a pause button.  It doesn’t just resume when you press play.  In fact, just pressing play jams up the cassette tape, and the tape has to be pulled out in one tangled ribbon until you find the unmarred length.  Then the tangle has to be snipped off and parts worth saving spliced back together.  And then you have to listen to it again and again:  the song with the hole in it.  Until the hole becomes part of the music, until it’s essential.  Until you can’t imagine the song, the life, without that gap. 
And what to do with the tangled ribbon clipped off?  Throw it away?  Put it in a hope chest?  A scrap book?  Bury it?  Burn it?  Turn it into a collage, into art?  It’s like the shank of long hair I found in a drawer, the ponytail I had snipped off to send to Locks for Love a couple years ago, but never got around to sending.  I found it in a drawer when I got home from Boston.  I held it in my hands, stroked it, marveled at is colors and texture.  I had hair like that!  A part of me said:  “Send it.”  But I just couldn’t, not yet.  I put it in a cloth bag and hung it from the body cast my friend Deer made of my torso before the mastectomy.  The body cast sits on a low table in my writing room.  I imagine bringing it to the Sound and finding a place to leave it, the hair and the cast, in a hidden forest, perhaps under a moss-draped, massive boulder.  I know the perfect spot in Sanctuary Bay.  But I’m not ready to let go of it just yet.  The long, dark blonde hair, the form of my two-breasted body:  I’m still holding on.  I have to trust I’ll know when it’s right to let them go.   
Later in the day, after a walk on the beach through what I called “the forest primeval,” another of Montague Island shoreline old growth forests ... and here is a taste of the woods and muskeg on Montague (including some forest yoga and forest high fashion):








we’d returned to the boat and I was chopping veggies for a stir fry.  I looked up from the onion under my knife and suddenly felt disoriented.  On the left hand side of my peripheral vision, lights dappled, as though from a reflecting a pool of water.  A blur swam in front of my eyes.  My head ached in three places.  “Is something wrong?” Craig asked.   I described the phenomenon to him, then put down my chopping knife and lay down in the bunk.  And fear had me by the throat.  Was it my brain?  Had breast cancer metastasized there?  A tiny voice of reason peeped out “migraine,” but the louder voice drowned it out.  “Cancer,” it said.  “You’re going to die this way.”  So easily it had hold of me.  I got back up, and the dappled lights became an aurora borealis, a haze of bright and shifting colors which gradually faced.  I felt a familiar sick feeling in my stomach.  “Migraine,” the voice insisted.  I took two advil, but I was unnerved, and eating dinner, when the song “Fields of Gold” came on, sung by Eva Cassidy, who died of brain cancer “before anyone even knew who she was,” as Craig said, my eyes brimmed over with tears. 
I thought of my pre-cancer self as that figure running through a summer meadow, her long hair loose around her shoulders, the ground solid under her feet.  She’s the one who charged around the Sound on a small boat believing being a vegan would keep her safe.  Yeah, I remember her.  What was her name?
The boat swaying in a slight aftertaste of swell seemed to emphasize that fact that no such solid ground supported me now.  A leg cramp, a head ache, a lower back pain, indigestion, the usual aches and pains of a 47 year-old body are all it took to call up the fear djinn, a flaming dervish, which in those moments feels like all I have, like the substrate that’s replaced the solid earth beneath me.  Fire, not earth.  The fear is bottomless, sudden as a lightning strike, overwhelming as a tinder dry forest on fire.  But I know it isn’t so.  Beneath the fear is earth, solid as it’s ever been. 
I place my hands on the pile of rocks we’ve collected, and I remember the feeling I had in the forest earlier today, when I leaned into the trunk of an old growth hemlock tilting out over a cliff.  Its great roots held it in place, some of them dangling in thin air.  I pressed my chest against the bark of that tree, hundreds of hears old, and breathed in its scent, my nose buried in its mossy bark.  I stretched my arms around it.  The earth beneath my feet was solid, and the trunk against my body was solid.  Which leads me to something else solid, which are these words, written by Hester Hill-Schnipper.  They are part of her address at the recent annual “Celebration of Life” put on by Beth Israel hospital’s cancer center.  Fear, powerful as it is in the moment, is, like a forest fire, temporary.  It burns itself out.  It runs out of fuel.  It meets a river.  River douses fire.  Earth channels river.  The river is paper to fire’s rock.  Paper covers rock.  Love is the paper.  After fire, I find a piece of granite in my hand.  I find a piece of fish on my plate.  I find some words to live by:
“I think we are all learning how to live. This diagnosis, which none of us wanted, brings us a chance to change.  It brings a luminous perspective, a chance to pay attention, to learn how to be idle and blessed. It asks us what we plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.”  It permits us to loosen the yoke of unnecessary burdens or worries and wrap ourselves, instead, in a joyful cloak of many colors. I hope that your cloak, woven of all the experiences of your life, shelters and embraces you. I pray that each of us, surrounded by blessings, carried forward by love, will learn to live as lions of courage and does of grace. Jane Kenyon wrote: 'Let it come as it will and don’t be afraid. God doesn't leave us comfortless, so let evening come.' And remember, always, that we stand together and strong in that evening."
I pray for the courage to enter each day that forest primeval, habitat of my brown bear Hanuman, to place my feet on that moss-covered earth, to find that one solid thing, be it rock or human hand, to grab onto when, for fear’s sudden flaring, my feet lose contact with the ground.  To put my faith in earth, not flame.  To embrace what's here, to let go of what's gone.  The way the Sound itself responds to weather.  
The squall’s passed over now.  It’s 10:30 and the light’s dim, but the water’s still shimmering.  Craig just made me a bowl of yogurt with raspberry jam and mandarin oranges.  The dapples are gone from my eyes.  Let evening come.