Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Interpreting the Onko Dream

I'm sitting on a church pew at a small table under a beautiful arched window decorated with a stained glass butterfly and mobiles made of driftwood, shells, beads and crystals. On the sill, four ceramic coffee cups -- indigo, cherry, orange, green -- sprout wheatgrass, a brighter green than the slope of spruce forest across the street.  Outside the wavery antique glass, the air is wavery with rain.  A front's moved in, erasing yesterday's blue sky overnight.  Craig and I are in Seward getting ready to head to Prince William Sound on our boat for the first research trip of the year.  When we went to sleep on the Natoa last night, that sky was still clear, with just a few bunched up clouds pushing up against the mountains.  In the wee hours, the forecasted rain began, a particular pattering I only hear when I'm snug in the Natoa's foc'sle, the bunk in the boat's bow, which is below waterline, so the other sound I hear down there is the lap of waves against the boat's sides, or on stormy nights at anchor, the anchor line rubbing against the chalk.  It would be womb-like if it wasn't so chilly.  It's still early spring, and even with yesterday's sun, the cold ocean water refrigerates the foc'sle.  I anticipate that, as in the past, I'll be collecting large stones when we get to the Sound, to warm in the oven during the day and slide between the sheets at night.

But right now I'm not on the boat.  I'm in Resurrect Art, my favorite Alaskan coffeeshop.  It was once a church, and it's still a church in a certain way, a quiet gathering place, Raylene's labor of love to promote community in this small, rough and tumble fishing and tourist-oriented (in the summer) town at the end of a highway.  In Seward in winter, the sun doesn't crest the mountains.  A strong wind blows up and down the inlet.  The tourists and seasonal workers depart.  The town hunkers in, and a certain segment of locals gathers each day at Resurrect Art.  The walls are covered in paintings by local artists; the shelves and glassed-in cases and baskets display local craft work, pottery, cards, prayer flags, jewelry, soaps, teas, books.   It's 10 am and quiet now.  The early morning regulars, a group of older men who peruse the newspapers and argue politics have left.  Our friend Mike, a boat skipper, even has a special mug hanging in a row of such mugs above the counter.  The handle of his mug is wound in waxed twine, his maritime handiwork.  He also wears a "monkey's fist," a small intricate ball of a knot he wove, on his jeans belt loop.  It's a miniature version of the fist-sized rope end used to give weight to a line so it can be thrown from ship to shore and caught more easily.  Mike's far away, in the Aleutians, on his boat.  He comes to Resurrect Art every single morning for a cup of drip coffee.  Sometimes he sits with one or two of his cronies, if they're not feuding over politics.  I miss hearing his loud laugh, often incredulous, over some particularly vexing bit of news.  I miss his bad jokes, even though I've heard them a dozen times.

Before we drove to Seward yesterday morning, I took a short walk to our neighbors' house.  The acoustic landscape of Homer is evolving by the day now, like a fugue in process of composition, with migrant birds returning to add another contrapuntal line.  The ground's still bare and brown, and it's still pretty cold, freezing hard at night, but the soundscape is filling in.  The calls of all these arriving birds fill me with an intense sense of well-being and also a longing.  They make me want to be even more present and awake than I am.  Spring is very fleeting here.  By June, the birds shut up, busy tending their clutches.  By early July, the baby green of alders and birches takes on a tougher, waxy sheen.  And then it's August, and the fireweed bloom, signaling summer's end.  And then it's winter.  I experience this joy every spring, but this time, it's even more acute.  Of course it's because I've returned now too after a year away.  I left last March before I heard the first spring bird.  It's another return, each time I recognize something I missed last year, a homing in.  And one of the most significant returns is the one just ahead of me:  the homecoming to Prince William Sound, to the whales.  To get there, there's an ocean crossing of six hours, sure to be lumpy and a bit nauseating after this weather system passes through, and it's the kind of place that seems to ask some kind of ferrying-over, some mini-odyssey, as payment for entrance.  Blank hours of rough seas.  And then the long smooth tongue of water pressed between islands that's Prince of Wales Passage; that's how the Sound takes us in.  Last year, I missed my first field season in the Sound in 24 years.

Robins showed up last week, and snipes, with their courtship dance, the males flying up above a field, circling, then diving down, creating a winnowing sound as the air rushes through their tail feathers.  I've never seen a snipe, though walking down the road yesterday, I head winnowing in each ear, one bird to my right, one bird to my left.  It's getting close to my birthday (Craig's too), and the other day he asked me what I wanted.  At first, I told him to just surprise me.  But it's not his way.  So I thought about it.  What do I need?  New running shoes.  A Stormy Seas jacket (for the boat).  But what if I asked for just this:  the mating wing-whoop of the snipe.  I don't even have to ask.  It's just given.  That, and robins.  The most common birds, but their song in Alaska, suddenly one April day, feels rare and exquisite.

As the weeks pass, I go longer and longer without thinking about last year, about cancer.  But now, it's in my dreams.  I don't remember details, just know when I wake, that I've visited Cancerland in sleep.  My psyche continues to process, to replay, to invent parables, to weave a deeper sense of things.  My friend David Grimes says our waking lives are dreams too, symbols to be found everywhere if we only look.  A day is a dream-tapestry, according to that theory.  Each bird (in Seward, the song sparrows that live along the harbor), each bud, spruce tree, human being I encounter is a part of the weave, and all together they tell a story.  If I only listen.  Our friend Flip Nicklin, photographer for National Geographic magazine, accompanied us on Natoa for two summers.  All day he took pictures.  Photography, like writing, requires an intense level of awake-ness, the ability to see what's easily missed and fleeting.  At night, Flip played a slide show set to music on his computer screen:  that day's images, a photographic journal, his tapestry of our lives.  They weren't only whale pictures, but photos of water, puffins, blueberry pies, fish Craig had caught, walks we took, kayak paddles.

Now in the coffeeshop, it's just me and a 30-something earnest dark-haired guy with a ponytail studying a tiny laptop through round-framed black glasses.  He's all in black.  Something's got his attention on that screen.  The barrista leans her cheek on her hand and reads.  A fan turns.  A certain song plays; I don't recognize it.  The guy and I sip from our coffee mugs at the same time.  A couple reads quietly in two easy chairs up in the choir loft, staring out the big church window.  What if this is our only house of worship?  What if this is all we get?  On days like this, the light never seems to change.  It's filtered through multiple cloud layers.  It's filtered through a fine continuous fall of rain.  It's filtered through this antique glass, and my 47 year-old eyes.  This is my dream today.  I look past all those filters to see what's being woven, what images I'll preserve.

I woke up very early with my limbs twitching, wanting so badly to run.  I'm thankful to my body, which needles and prods me to move, to do yoga or to put on my brand new running shoes.  I'm told regular aerobic exercise lessens the risk of breast cancer recurrence.  And weight-bearing on my arm prevents lymphadema.  I'm grateful my body knows this, and prods me when I slack off.  Craig and I drove to the high school pool so he could swim while I ran, but the pool was closed.  So I got out, stretched, and headed back toward town in the rain.  We planned to meet here, at Resurrect Art with our computers.  When I arrived, ready for warmth and coffee, Craig was nowhere to be seen.  I called him and he told me he was on the boat, had decided that he wanted to work there, not at the coffee shop.  I got annoyed.  He'd reneged on our plan.  He'd disappointed me.  Running back along the water, I caught myself rehearsing my complaint to him.  There I was, running, irritated.  Wow, Eva, I thought, is it that easy to return to life created not out of moments, but out of thoughts, of life lived inside your head?  It filled me with a kind of seasickness.  Like I'd left that gift I'd been given back in Boston, the "permission slip" of health, on a park bench.  The voice in my head was just noise, another filter, the kind that erases bird calls, that misses a river otter foraging in the harbor, that fails to see a raven rooting around in a barrel of strawberry plants, that makes me look past the important parts of my daily dream, to miss the best shots.  Somewhere along the way, I put it down, that irritation. Before I got back to the boat, I left it on the gravel in one of the alleys that runs between rows of houses in Seward.  When I saw Craig, I kissed him.

It happened yesterday too, but I didn't catch myself; someone else caught me.  On the drive to Seward I called my friend in Florida.  The trajectory of her life got recently utterly derailed when both of her parents were diagnosed with lung cancer at nearly the same time.  She dropped everything and moved there to tend to them.  Her father died several weeks ago.  She'd sent me an e-mail describing her life, and feeling guilty about "whining."  Her days are structured around her mother's chemo and doctor visits and keeping a house very clean to prevent infections, a life she couldn't have anticipated a year ago.  I called her.  I e-mailed her back with unasked-for advice.  And then I called her.  She was telling me about her mother's psychological struggles with with steroids, and I talked about mine, and she said, "But Eva, there's a big difference between yours and my mom's.  You knew that your treatment was temporary.  That one day it would be over and you'd be healthy again.  Your prognosis was good.  It's different for my mom."  Right.  There I was, being one of those irritating people who express a false "understanding" for another's cancer experience.  I don't know what it would be like to be going through chemo to buy a few month's more time, a few days of "more life," knowing that short of some miracle, health was not ahead for me.  I had to say, "You're right.  I have no idea what that's like."  I have no idea of how my friend weaves each day into meaning, or if she uses a loom or a pen or a phone call to her husband.   It was another thing, after I said goodbye to my friend, that I had to put down, to leave along the highway to Seward.

In The Emperor of All Maladies, Mukherjee deconstructs one of the most familiar of cancer prefixes, "onco."  It comes, he says, from the Greek "onkos."  He writes:  "The Greeks used an evocative word to describe tumors, onkos, meaning "mass" or "burden."  A few sentences later, he goes further:  "But if one looks back even further behind the Greek to the ancestral Indo-European language, the etymology of the word onkos changes.  Onkos arises from the ancient word nek.  And nek, unlike the static onkos, is the active form of the world load.  It means to carry, to move the burden from one place to the next, to bear something across a long distance and bring it to a new place."  In the dream-life of cancer, it's exactly this carrying I wish to do.  To come to that new place, reading the symbols and signs and interpreting the messages along the way.  I may think I put the burden of irritation or arrogance down by the side of the road, but I'm only moving it further along my way.  It's not the burden but the new place that matters.

What if this is a dream?  And my mistakes and mis-steps are simply threads, aspects of myself to weave and interpret, along with the stained glass window, the winnowing snipe, the cup of coffee I'm drinking this morning?  The beautiful things, the pleasing parts of the dream, woven with the ugly, the scary, the inept.  What if the important thing is that Craig's living his dream, even if it means letting me down?  And my friend in Florida is living her particular dream, with its mix of burdens and gifts, and no one else can interpret it, much less bear it or lessen it for her?  I can only work on brushing past the filters so I can listen better and talk less, both in my head and out of my mouth.  Daily, I'm practicing this resurrection.  So I can truly hear a song sparrow or a robin or a snipe or a friend.      

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