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.        

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