Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Green and Healing Place: Part 4: Voices Older and Wiser

26 June

This morning, the boat turned slowly around the anchor in Marsha Bay, tucked into one of its corners.  The clouds enveloped the slopes around us.  A front moved in last night, and I woke at one point to pouring rain.  Mist drifted across the forested slopes.  The Sound is a rainforest, and this is why.  This is its wardrobe, its palette, the greens damped down, muted by gray, rain so fine it mists the windows like breath, mists our faces.

Now, the other end of the day, we’re anchored in Sanctuary Bay, the boat not turning at all, the water glossy still, reflecting the cloudy sky.  Beside me are four cobalt blue bottles filled with water for Lauren.  And two eagle feathers.  And the antler of a deer.

The wind was blowing this morning out in Montague Strait, so we took it easy, working on our computers, eating breakfast, then suiting up for a hike up to the lake above Marsha Bay.  My friend Molly Lou and I found it twenty years ago, when we lived and worked out of a field camp on Squire Island for months at a time.  We were always on the lookout for ponds and lakes to swim in, and the hollow in the landscape above Marsha Bay had lake written all over it.  I remember scrambling up to the lake, the granite rock we found, our plunges into the deep, frigid water, the sun on the rock face at the lake’s far end.  Craig and I decided to follow along the stream connecting lake to bay.  He reached the stream’s outflow ahead of me, and paused, looking for the best place to get out.  As my kayak drifted near, I saw a tiny fawn just a few feet from Craig, standing in the stream.  I couldn’t have been more than knee high, brown with white speckles across its back, impossibly small and beautiful, and somehow soft, as though its bones hadn’t yet solidified into a real deer yet.  “Craig, look,” I said, and as soon as Craig turned his head, the fawn walked away, and that’s when I saw the mother standing, head and ears erect, at the edge of the woods, staring at us with wide black eyes.  The fawn trotted past her and she gave it a nudge with her hip, toward the woods, while never breaking eye contact with us.  There was something very human in that gesture, the way a mother might shove her child behind her while facing down a threat.  Only when her fawn was safe in the trees did she turn and disappear.  Craig and I looked at each other in disbelief.  When I got out of my kayak and dragged it above tide-line, I found a deer antler in the creek, green with moss.


We hiked up along the stream’s edge as it tumbled down from the lake, cutting a gully through the muskegs.  Soon our pants were wet, and our heads surrounded by a cloud of black flies.  Not only because of them did we not linger long at the lake, or swim as I’d imagined we might, despite the rain.  Perched in trees around the stream’s headwaters were mew gulls with nests nearby, and they scolded us intensely as we stood looking at the lake.  Craig pointed out three chicks, just tiny brown balls of fluff clustered together on the water, the adults swooping over us, leaving them vulnerable to glaucous-winged gulls or eagles.  So we left the lake to the gulls, and to the memory of Molly Lou and me, plunging into the water, coming up with our skin tingling.   On the way back down, I filled one of the blue bottles for Lauren of that lake’s water.  I think of it as a secret, that lake, tucked up above a bay that’s almost impossible to enter for the rocks and islands guarding its mouth.


Hiking through a muskeg, I noticed a strange cluster of pinkish-white flower-cups on a branch.  I’d been thinking how all the wildflowers are to me like old friends, like the birds I hear.  Blueberry flowers, shooting stars, columbine, purple asters, bog candles, deer cabbage.  I thought for a moment, as the leaves on the branch looked so familiar, that I’d managed to never see this plant’s flower before.  And then I saw it was a blueberry bush.  And their flowers are long past, already forming hard green berries.  But these flowers had never stopped growing.  They were three times normal size, unnaturally thick-petaled.  I pointed them out to Craig.  It had to be some form of cancer, some uncontrolled cell divising.  I looked around.  Here, in this purest of places, a flower had cancer.  I thought of all my wonderings as to what might have caused cancer in my breast, how I might have prevented it.  How fruitless.  In that innocent flower I saw myself reflected, saw Lauren reflected.  If only pure water, rain, mist, and wind could heal us all, not only in spirit, but in body too.

And tonight, I kayaked into the “inner sanctum,” the lagoon of Sanctuary Bay, as the tide was high, to fill the last bottle.  Mist drifted across the lagoon, and I paddled through it.  I floated in the middle of it and took out the bottle.  May cancer never again enter our lives, I prayed, as I dipped my hand into the lagoon, cold from all the snowmelt high on the slopes.  May Lauren and I be free of cancer forever.  That water:  sea rushing in on the tide, snow melting way up high, rushing down the mountain sides, spilling as waterfalls, pouring into the lagoon on all sides.  A constant cycling of water.  Strange algae and eelgrass streaming in its currents.  Pale white sea anemones anchored to rocks.  Sea paper suspended from overhanging logs.  Lion’s mane jellyfish pulsing by my kayak.

When I got back to the boat, I paged through an old journal from 1991, when I was out in the Sound with Molly Lou, a time when I struggled mightily with depression, and even at times contemplated suicide.  I reread, with sadness, this sentence from that time:  “This neglected soul inside me must use these dark thoughts to wake up; and yet no matter what the outward circumstances of my life, the question of suicide remains unanswered, and its lure is like a bell ringing over and over, saying it is inevitable.”  It was not.  And I no longer hear that bell, in fact, I hear its opposite.  I wish I could reach back and find that 29 year-old me, but when I read further after this statement, I see that in some ways, a part of me did.  When I read the following entry, something about it felt connected to my kayak paddle into the inner sanctum tonight.  It’s both the prayer and its answer, for Lauren and for me.  It’s an older, wiser voice that’s been inside me all along.  It’s my hope for the water I will send to her.

There is a very small and simple image that grounds me to life.  It is small and round, as if I were seeing it through a keyhole.  It is of a woman who is some distant, strong me, and she sits in the grasses and wild plants, alone.  That world is green; wildflowers speckle the meadow where she sits looking at single shooting star flower, which is clear and vivid in my view.  A breeze blows, yet its utterly calm, as though peace and wind were synonyms.  There aren’t words, just her pure and simple self, alive among other live things, with as much right to be as the plants and birds.  This woman moves through the world with an invisible climate close to her body, which is the air and light and scent and sound of that green place, which is always with her.  Maybe it’s her soul, and she wears it outside her body.  It’s what she breathes.   Every year, she makes a long pilgrimage to that place to renew it, and she comes home.  And though out in the world, people come and go, close or far, into her space, she can always return, alone, through that keyhole, to her true nature, and it sustains her.  It’s sacred.  So she must thank it.     

27 June

The clouds have touched down, almost to the water, and the Sound is enshrouded in mist.  The water’s a milky silver, except where the islands are reflected; there, it’s greenish silver, with a couple droppers full of black mixed in.  We just left the Chenega Village dock, our arms loaded with gifts of the sea, the soil, the labor of friends.  Chenega is primarily a Chugachmiut Native village of less than a hundred people.  On the edge of the dock where we tied up, a man was cleaning a harbor seal he’d shot across the passage.  Another man in raingear was filleting red salmon at a cleaning table.  Seals and salmon are the subsistence mainstay of the village, just as they are for killer whales, and the village is now gathering, harvesting, putting up food.  As we walked on the gravel road past small houses identical except for their varying pastel colors and the way each had been funked up by its inhabitants, we saw smoke drifting up from banyas (saunas) and smokehouses.  Teenage girls in skinny jeans and hooded sweatshirts and I-Pods walked from one house to another, like teenage girls anywhere.  Andy and Kate’s place was abloom with spring flowers, tulips, daffodils, but mostly wildflowers they’d dug up and hauled home from the mountains and meadows surrounding the village:  clumps of purple flag iris, wild geranium, columbine, violet, monkshood.  They’d planted flower  and strawberry beds in terraces along a rock cliff, with a stone step path leading up to their greenhouse/hot tub spa they’d built from scavenged materials:  odd bits of wood from the dump.  Their six year-old boy Hawken met us at the door with his Power Rangers sword and wide brown eyes.  “I know something you’ll be interested in,” he said, and took us by another greenhouse, then through the woods past his tree house and fort and his mother’s screened gazebo (also built of scavenged materials), into a meadow, to a platform Andy built from lumber he saved from a neighbor’s demolished house.  In the center of the platform was a fire pit.  “I helped collect all the firewood!” Hawken said.  After touring the greenhouse, Andy picking two bunches of bok choy for us, Hawken excitedly pointing out the catnip plant, we followed Andy into the kitchen, where Kate had tea ready.  A huge canner rattled on the stove.  They were in the midst of smoking and canning red salmon.  On the table was a open jar of salted salmon roe and saltine crackers.  Out the window was their hummingbird feeder/trap, where they catch and band over 200 birds each spring.  One of their birds turned up in Florida.  Beyond the feeder, I watched Hawken entertaining himself on the trampoline, Moose, the big black lab mix begging him to throw a ball.  Andy and Kate live almost entirely off the land.  I’ve never met people who love nature and animals as much as they do, and who also hunt and fish and trap.  They eat gull eggs, deer, black bear, ducks, fish, shrimp and seal.  This spring, Hawken shot his first bear with a bow from a tree stand with his father.  His shot killed the bear instantly.  “Now the bear is going to be his spirit guide,” Kate said.  “Bears have a power, you can feel it,” Andy said.  I told them about my connection to “Hannuman,” how I’d visualized the Montague brown bears last summer.  Andy, like many deer hunters, won’t hunt on Montague anymore; he’s been spooked too many times by its bears.  But we agreed you can sense when it’s safe and when it’s not.  “You can feel their energy,” Andy said, his brown eyes as wide as Hawken’s.  When we left their house, they gave us a jar of freshly smoked red salmon.

We walked fast through the misting rain to the dock, where our friends on the salmon seine boat Agave had tied up behind us.   My stepson Lars fished with Ken for three summers.  Ken has fished more than thirty seasons, March through September each year.  All winter he works on his boat.  He described a family trip to Maui last winter.  After two weeks on the beach he grew restless.  He needed projects.  It made me incredibly happy to see Ken again, to have a chance to thank him.  He wrote me a letter last summer when I was going through treatment, and in it he expressed a shyness over a fisherman writing to an “English teacher.”  But his card was a particular treasure to me, and I told him so, that I have it still, that it meant a great deal.  “Aren’t you the one who sent all those packages, always with cards and notes, out to the boat those summers?” he asked me.  That’s just love, that’s community, circling around, he seemed to say.  That’s what we do, and it flows back to us, and through us, and away.  There was a knock on Ken’s boat cabin door.  Jake, his crewman opened it, and there was Andy, bearing yet another gift for us:  a Hawaiian treat made of poi and pure honey.

My heart swells with the beauty of this Alaskan life.  As we sat around the galley table talking story, a young woman, Megan, who runs her own seiner, walked up to the window to ask if anyone had a tea ball.  Three weeks ago, she had her first baby, by a very difficult C-section, and she was still very sore.  It was her first day back in the Sound fishing, and she’d strained herself “pulling things” and the baby, who was on the boat too (along with her husband and one extra crew person to help out), was hungrily consuming all of the calories she took in through her milk.  How she was doing all of this was beyond our comprehension, but she’s like that.  She’s been fishing since childhood, and skippering her own boat since her mid-twenties.  A friend had given her some loose healing tea, but she had no strainer, so I ran over to the boat to get her one.  When we left Ken’s boat, as he and his crew scrambled to prepare for another seine set, he gave us two enormous king salmon, one whole, and one he’d filleted for us.  Together they weighed nearly fifty pounds.  As we pulled away from the dock, I felt like I was riding an enormous wave of kindness, and I feel it still.  To be welcomed back into the Sound, into life, this way is an extraordinarily powerful kind of healing.  Tomorrow we leave the Sound.  I’ve been doing a cleanse all this time on the boat to rid my body of any remaining traces of chemo and radiation, and as I head back to town, to the upcoming visit of my sister and her family in a few days, I feel renewed, and blessed beyond measure.  I want to hold those four bottles of water I collected in the Sound to my heart, so some of the blessing and healing I feel is transferred into the water, and finds its way to Lauren.

I don’t know what the future holds, and time on earth for every one of us is all too short, even if we live to be 90.  I have no way of knowing if any cancer cells lie dormant in my body.  But tonight, in Foxfarm Bay, in this moment, a faint violet light tinting the clouds and water as the mist lifts halfway up the islands and catches in the trees, I know that I am completely, utterly healed. 


A Green and Healing Place: Part 3: When Humans and Animals Spoke the Same Language

21 June, Summer Solstice

Another morning, another cobalt blue bottle filled with Prince William Sound water for Lauren, this one from newly dubbed “Black-Tail Stream.”  In the photo below, perhaps you can see the footprints of the deer beside the bottle. 

We woke to sun through the boat’s skylight.  After yesterday, we needed to stretch our legs, so kayaked to a black sand beach on Hinchinbrook Island.  The top of the beach was criss-crossed with fresh deer tracks, and in the soft, dry sand just below the highest tide line of drift logs, we saw our first brown bear prints, a sow and cub who’d passed through some days before.  Hello, Hanuman, I called as we walked toward a stream outflow at the beach’s eastern end.  I’m not sure if any brown bears heard me, but I know that a pair of Sitka black-tailed deer ambling down to the stream for a drink didn’t.  I was walking on the lower beach, near the water, and Craig was walking up higher, on the berm.  I saw them first, on the other side of the stream from us, and called out to Craig, pointing, motioning to stop.  The deer didn’t see or hear us at first, lowered their heads down to sip from the stream.  

I took one step forward.  Held still.  Took another.  The deer looked up and around, and I could see the instant the nearest one became aware of me.  Not of me, but of something irregular in her line of sight.  She froze.  Then the second deer looked up.  Now both stood stock-still, one with ears up and alert, head high, the other in an awkward semi-crouch.  Both Craig and I froze too.  I tried a step.  They didn’t move.  So I tried another.  I could tell when Craig took a step, because they turned their heads in his direction, but didn’t move their bodies.  I took several more slow steps. 

Then, to my bafflement, the closer deer stepped toward me.  I stepped toward her.  Hands in my pockets, I kept above my hips still.  Now I could see her eyes, the whiskers around her moist, black nose, the soft insides of her ears, the way those ears twitched.  Craig stopped walking and just watched.  Being one to say hi out loud to birds, animals, sometimes even trees, today, no sound came out of my mouth.  My mouth smiled.  She dipped her head, sniffed.  I dipped my head, sniffed.  I took a few more steps.  Now only the stream ran between us.  Her companion stood further up the beach, relaxed enough to nuzzle an itch on her shoulder.  I took one step down the stream embankment.  She threw her head up, turned side ways, stepped a few hard paces on the gravel.  I stopped, looked back at Craig.  He stood still, just watching.  I crouched down.  Stood up again.  She walked toward me.  Stopped.  Dipped her head, sniffed, trying to catch my scent.  I knew the wind was blowing from the west, carrying my scent toward her.  Perhaps she was simply trying to identify that scent.  Perhaps she’d never encountered a human being before.  I dipped my head, sniffed, hoping I could smell her wild musk. 

Thoughts, yes, there were thoughts, winging through my head, quick, swooping, like swallows.  She thinks she recognizes me.  Yes, we know one another, from that distant time, when humans and animals spoke the same language.  Our eyes meet across that wide water, that distance of time.  This is healing.  This is grace.  No, they weren’t thoughts, exactly, there weren’t words in my head, not those words.  Just wings beating.  I’ve only now put those words to them.  She called me forward.  I called her forward, to cross that divide.  Her companion, nervous now, marched a few steps down the beach.  She followed him.  I thought they were leaving, so I stepped down to the stream edge, to collect water for Lauren.  The stream was down a small embankment, gravel on my side, mud on hers.  Kneeling by the water, I could see just her head peering over the top of the berm still looking at me.  My change of position piqued her interest again, and she walked forward.  I stood.  Her companion, who’d had enough of this strange dance, march-stepped toward the tall grass.  I stepped into the water.  I sniffed, dipped my head in her direction.  She turned sideways, “stotted” a few steps, jumping up and hitting the gravel sharply with all four hooves at once.  Pounce, pounce, pounce.  As though firmly placing herself back on the island, back across the divide.  A little tantrum of I belong here.  On this side.  You over there.  I climbed onto the mud bank on the other side of the creek, their side, but by then, the deer had disappeared into the rye grass.

Craig walked up behind me.  Said he’d never seen such tame deer.  Still absorbing the encounter, we walked further up the stream, and I resumed my chant:  Hello, Hanuman.  The stream wound between six-foot tall banks topped with grass, ferns, meadows and forest.  No sign of bears.  Sunlit.  A stream twining its way from somewhere deep in the island, emptying into Port Etches.  Hesitant to penetrate any further into Hanuman’s turf, we hiked back to the beach, then took off our shoes and socks and jackets and did ten sun salutations in the black sand.  Thank you, Hanuman, brown bear, for everything you’ve done for me, for letting us walk on your island, I prayed in my head.  Thank you deer, for crossing that divide for just one moment.  On the other end of the beach, another stream, shallower and narrower, flowed out onto the gravel.  The water ran over a luxuriant bed of variegated algae, bright green, lemony yellow, tan, brown, cream, all streaming in the current like a cloak sewn from feathers of an exotic forest bird.  We stood mesmerized by it, yellow warbler and hermit thrush songs as soundtrack.  Only the water and a bit of breeze moved.  Everything held still inside us and around us, even time.

23 June:  Bear and Barnacle Prayer

Already two days past the summer solstice.  We lose an increment of light too small to notice each night.  This morning, I woke to a thick downy bed of cloud pulled over this part of the Sound, low enough to cover the tops of the islands.  Those peaks, I imagine, high above us, gleamed in harsh sunlight, the world below the cloudbank muffled, muted, calm. 

Beside my computer, I’ve placed the giant barnacle shell I found on the beach the other night.   When I place it on my palm, the shell nearly covers it, conceals all the lines:  head line, heart line, life line.  In my palm, in my eye, in my mind when I regard it, the barnacle shell takes up all the space, displaces thoughts of future.  Obliterates the past.  It’s my morning mantra.  I’m a poor meditator when it comes to sitting on a cushion in our loft at home.  But out here, with my eyes open, crawling around the woods, watching water sluice back and forth between two starfish-covered rocks covered at low tide, I’m a champion.  I can fix my awareness on a bird song or a deer and lose my mind.   

Like a tree, the barnacle shell has grown by adding layers upon layers of calcification.  It’s pocked with worm holes.  A tiny down feather from my vest pocket is stuck the rim.  Inside, remnants of other shells have collected, like bones in a midden.  The barnacle shell is as big as a bear’s vertebra. 

Bear, barnacle, feather, bone.  All are linked in my memory to finding the shell, to the place where it lay, to that particular meditation session on Montague Island.  Craig climbed a rocky promontory to scan for whales, and I ducked under the alder branches to see how high I could climb up into the forest.  Hello, Hanuman, I called, as always.  Bent over, that’s how I saw the shell.  I pocketed it.  Bending down under branches, that’s how I saw the wings.  The feathers.  The bones.  The dry white smears of bird scat everywhere.  From the alder branches, a posse of crows scolded me.  They shuffled along branches, looking down, first one black beady eye, then the other, fixed on me, the invader.  Complaining like supermarket tellers when you come in at two minutes to closing.

Those coarse voices.   They were the first thing to make me a little uneasy.  Their voices, unlike the songbirds we've been hearing, conveyed a different kind of intentionality.  They scolded.  Deeper in the island, we heard what sounded like a hundred crows.  What were they scolding?  

Everywhere, you hear bird song this time of year, song sparrow, yellow warbler, fox sparrow, golden-crowned warbler, hermit thrush, varied thrush, robin, all announcing their territories, calling their mates.  And the closer I listen, the more exquisite each bird’s song is, crystalline as the sound of a stream I heard once in the dead of winter.   It was 50 below zero, and the sound stopped me dead in my ski tracks.  I closed my eyes in the forest:  burbling water, magical in that cold.  

Those crow voices had no such melody.  Leaves rustled as they hopped from limb to limb.  I looked down at the mossy ground, which was littered with dead things:  skull of a small predator, maybe a weasel.  Skull of a larger predator, maybe a river otter.  The scattered bones of birds.  A pair of seabird wings draped over a root.   Crow feathers splayed out like a hastily laid down and abandoned hand of cards.  I was standing under a killing tree.  But whose?  Peregrine falcon?  Owl?  Raven?  Crow?  

"Craig, when you’re done, come into the forest here and see this," I said.  "All these bones."  Craig collects animal skulls and bones.  But mainly I wanted a reason to raise my voice.  Then I started to climb toward a large hemlock, along a rock face, up into the forest.  I didn’t get two steps before I saw the brown bear scat.  Dark ropes composed of brown grass.  A lean diet for a brown bear. 

" Craig," I yelled.  "Guess what I found?  Hanuman scat."

"How fresh?" he yelled back from his perch on the beach.

I poked it with my finger.  "Not warm.  But not dried out."  I looked up into the forest.  Hello, bear.  Did I hear a rustling?  Or was it just the crows, who followed me, branch to branch, still kvetching.  Are they warning me of something?  I wondered.  I’ll just go to that hemlock, no further, I thought.  I leaned into the deeply trodden trail leading straight up the slope, using my hands to help me climb.  My face inches from a devil’s club stalk, a dead one, without leaves, I saw, caught on its thorns, tufts of wooly brown hair, extremely fine, each hair kinked as if singed.  I gathered up that brown bear wool and tucked it into the barnacle shell, and I climbed back down.  

"Don’t you want to hike back through the forest?"  Craig asked.  

"No way," I said.  Some places, if you pay attention, just say, “No.”  Permission is not granted here.  The crows cawed and cawed, following us as we walked down the beach back toward the kayaks.  I kept looking over my shoulder.  “Goodbye, Hanuman,” I yelled. 

Was it okay to take that fur?  I’m looking at it right now.  Stuck to that little snarl, a few fragments of sphagnum.  I lift it to my nose, but I can’t smell bear.  I want to believe he’s my protector, the way I imagined during chemo.  What would it be like to simply walk through a door of faith like that?  To believe myself safe on Montague Island?  To believe the bears recognize me, somehow know that we are bonded?  True belief would mean crossing that divide between us, learning the common language.  But still I fear them.  Craig kept the weasel skull, and it sits here too, beside the barnacle shell, tinged green with time, tiny, but with a formidable set of teeth.  Sits by an eagle feather I found last night on a rock painted impossible shades of orange and yellow with lichen.  Sits by a round of granite whorled like a planet.  Beside two bottles of Prince William Sound water for Lauren.  And a prayer card of St. Francis.  All the talismans I collect to keep me safe, to keep my loved ones safe. 

The barnacle holds the meditation now, of a death-filled place.  The feather holds the memory of a safe place:  in late evening sun, a sea otter asleep in a cove no bigger than a wading pool.  A sea otter who awoke when we clambered up onto the rock above it, considered us for a moment, then clasped his paws under his chin and dozed off again.  Two lunky humans a few feet away.  He slept with the sounds of other lives drifting by his ears:  two sea lions chuffing and throwing fish around.  Gulls screeching, diving for stray bits of fish.  Our voices.  Predators all.  And he felt safe. 

There’s a Buddhist prayer:  May all beings be safe.  Can it be that in any moment of pure attention, or prayer, in the space of a breath, or the amount of time it takes a yellow warbler or fox sparrow to complete its song, I’m completely safe?  Lauren’s safe?  Bennett’s safe?  All my loved ones are safe?  That’s a doorway of faith I believe I can walk through.  May I be present to bird song, to water, to small bones scattered around my feet.  To the hair of a brown bear caught on a devil’s club branch, to crow caws, reminding me to stay awake.  To listen within and without. 

May all beings be present to what’s given:  water, cloud, rain, sunlight, leaf, feather, bone, rock.  Now and at the hour of death, amen. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Green and Healing Place: Part 2: Miles from Nowhere

19 June

Heading out from Rocky Bay, the sky, like yesterday, a crazy quilt of clouds, oyster shell, oyster flesh, silty oyster bed, but brighter, so the day feel less languid, more hopeful.  Before we left, after breakfast, we kayaked into the Rocky Bay lagoon this morning, said hello to an eagle, several Dusky Canada geese, crows, river otters, a harbor seal, a sea otter, a kittiwake.  As always, I imagined unseen brown bears watching us, eyes hidden among alder leaves.  Writer Richard Nelson calls that sensation “forest of eyes.”  Here, I feel watched.  To me, Montague Island is all eye.  One enormous dragonfly eye.   Many ways to say, “You are alive.  Because I see you, you are alive.”

Craig spotted killer whales at the usual spot, off Schooner Rock, an outcropping shaped not so much like a schooner as a crumpled hat.  It was the AK2 pod, one of the “host pods” that we last saw in Resurrection Bay in May, relocated now to Hinchinbrook Entrance to feed on chum salmon, and hopefully entertain visiting pods.  That’s why we’re here.  With its chum salmon streams, the Montague shoreline is a hot spot this time of year.  This morning, the AK’s were on the hunt.  Their diet, unlike mine, with its detox tinctures, its protein and mineral powder, its frozen fruits and quinoa, brown rice, and oat milk in a box, is simple.  If they cleanse and fast, it’s not intentional, just precipitated by the lean months of winter, when the salmon swim far offshore into the Gulf.  Today, the whales combed the shorelines of Zaikof Bay, traveling deep inside, to the very head, right through a sea otter nursery.   Mother otters held pups on their stomachs, even though already those pups were almost equal in size.  When the whales swam close, the otters humped themselves over in what’s called the “teapot” configuration, sticking their heads under water to look around, to keep tabs on the orcas as they passed under.   AK pod is unique in that they love the shorelines.  They’re one of the only pods in the Sound to slide along shallow beaches with round stones, to rub their bodies on the bottom.  They exhale, big bubble clouds rising to the surface, to reduce their buoyancy.  As a result, their gray saddle patches are scratched up.  But today they didn’t rub.  They charged along the beaches, chasing salmon.  There are two new calves in AK2 pod this year, one born to a female named Kenai, one to a female named Stellar.  We named them Bennett and Ella, after a brother and sister we know on Cape Cod.  The human Bennett, eight years old, is the boy being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (I wrote about him in previous entries).  And when I see this little orca Bennett, vital and spry, I think of how the human Bennett bounces back after his hell-weeks after chemo, how he too is vital and spry to the core.

I think constantly too of my other Cape Cod friend, Lauren, who is being treated for breast sarcoma, who’s suffering through a summer of intense chemo and unrelenting nausea, no let-up.  But when I talked to her, I felt the vital force, strong as a mother orca’s, underneath the travail.  With me on this trip I have four small cobalt blue bottles so I can collect healing Prince William Sound water for Lauren, for her altar. 

Now 2 pm.  I came down from the flying bridge to toast a piece of rice bread on top of the stove, then to spread on some almond butter and blackstrap molasses.  And to drink a cup of a grain beverage called Teccino, a fake coffee that tastes nothing like.  I do feel more alert now, I admit, so perhaps it fooled my body.   The coast guard keeps issuing a “Pon-Pon” on the radio, which means, usually, something dire has happened:  “The Coast Guard received a transmission of a woman saying “please, please,” no further information, from the area of Hinchinbrook.  Any vessel who heard the transmission, please call the Coast Guard.”  But no information was forthcoming.

Maybe it was me, my silent prayers so strong they came through on the radio.  “Please, please, Earth, heal Lauren’s cancer, ease her side-effects, lift her spirits.  Keep Bennett and Ella and their moms strong.  Please, please, let me live to be an crotchety old prune-juice drinking woman.  Please, please, keep my loved ones safe.  Keep the whales safe.  Keep this place safe.  Thank you, Earth, ultimate source of healing, amen.”

Now in the bunk, cool air drifting in from the open skylight.   After anchoring for the night, we began to hear orca calls on the hydophone.  With our directional dish, we honed in on them:  they were to the north of us.  So we pulled anchor again and headed up, and there they were, now 19 whales, the AK2’s from earlier today, along with the AK1’s, a group of seven, also with a new calf, a little gray speckled thing who kept slapping his tail fast, repeatedly, so it looked like he was being propelled along by an outboard engine tilted too high.  He swam with the big boys.  We know he’s a he because he showed his pink penis.  Not to us, but to the other boys.  We call them male play groups, those churning gangs of over-sexed guys, all ages, showing off their junk to each other.

So we had to abandon our plan to eat the halibut Craig caught today for dinner, and settled for lentil soup in tin cups, up on the flying bridge, tracking the whales in the evening light.  The clouds broke apart.

Now the sound of a sea lion breathing, chasing a fish, on the hydrophone.  And the sound of Craig munching tortilla chips.  Unknown, unknowable, the next moment.  A bit like finding killer whales.  You can drive the boat for a hundred miles searching, or just sit off Schooner Rock and wait and they appear.  How I’d like to enter the mind and body of a killer whale for just one day, one hour, even.  To know if my impression is right, that they live purely in the moment, in a profound state of aliveness, without guilt or shame or remorse or anxiety about the future.  For just one hour to throw off this fraught human soul, this tangled skein of line:  the second-guessing, questioning, agonizing, backward and forward glancing, thought-train of this human mind.

20 June

“Miles from nowhere.  Guess I’ll take my time.  Oh yeah, to reach there.”  Cat Stevens

A day before Solstice.  Craig just pulled up a ling cod from the sea floor beside Schooner Rock.  Beside me, the first cobalt blue bottle of healing water for Lauren, collected from what I call Hanuman Creek, which winds through the old growth forest on Montague Island, emptying into the small bight where we anchored last night.  We kayaked to shore, stumbled up seaweed-slicked rocks, hiked up the creek, filled the bottle, then cut into the forest.  We’ve walked through that stretch of old growth many times, but somehow never before found the two giant hemlocks with chambers in them.  The first tree looked like it belonged in a southern swamp, its roots forming a cave underneath it.  I squeezed between two roots and crawled inside, lay on the moss staring up at the tree’s underside, the tree’s entire weight above me.  The second tree, not far from the first, had a vertical, oval hole in the trunk, where lightning had once struck and charred its heart.  I pushed my own trunk all the way through and leaned out the other side, as through a window.

Now we hear distant, intermittent orca calls on the hydrophone.  Too intermittent and quiet to use the directional hydrophone.  I look out the window.  The wide open middle Sound stretches for miles to the distant Chugach Range.  Ten miles separate us from Hinchinbrook Island.  No clue as to which way to go.  To pump himself up for the search, Craig plays Cat Stevens.   “So on and on we go.  The seconds tick the time out.  There’s so much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out,” he bellows. 

This whole album speaks to me today.  An hour ago, my friend Lisa called me from Homer.  She was driving by my road and thought perhaps I was home.  “No,” I told her, “I’m in Hinchinbrook Entrance.”  I haven’t seen Lisa since an impromptu lunch back in May.  We chat, hang up, and once again I fail to say what’s really in my heart.  That I miss her.  That I need her friendship. 

I recently realized that I’d failed to create a true support system for myself when I returned home.  I guess I believed it would simply create itself around me, without my conscious intention.  Back on Cape Cod, Lauren called together a “healing circle,” friends who come together to surround her with healing energy every couple weeks.  After diagnosis, during treatment, you have permission to reach out.  Still, it wasn’t easy for me.  It took me months to create a healing circle on the Cape.  But in some ways it was easier there, where I was a stranger, with nothing to tend and prop up.  To my old friends, I wanted to appear strong, a survivor.  I didn’t know how to let go of my previous identity.  Slowly, it unraveled.  Chemo pulled it apart, strand by strand.  But it failed to untangle a very old impulse:  to be what I believed others needed me to be.  Even in the midst of treatment, I wanted to take care of other people’s feelings.  To protect my loved ones somehow from the brunt of my experience (well, except Craig and Mara.  They got the brunt).   To protect myself from being so vulnerable, so in need.  I still battle this part of myself who isolates and evades.

“You don’t have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver.  “Just let the small animal of your body love what it loves.”  I stare out at the gray water, then over at the rocky shoreline where every morning deer walk.  My body’s small animal recognizes this place, where it doesn’t have to be good, strong or brave.  My body’s small animal relaxes in the gaze of the island, as it relaxes into the presence of a friend.   Healing from an encounter with cancer, healing mind, body, spirit, and soul, begins in every moment.  Begins now.  The body recovers first.  Mind, spirit and soul follow.  Each moment from now on is healing.  Each bite of apple. Each sip of mountain stream water.  Each breath of Zaikof Bay air.  Each visit with a friend. 

Cancer is the turning of the body against itself.  Why did it happen?  How can I insure it doesn’t happen again?  (And I know the answer is, I can’t, completely).  Stopping cancer’s death wish, its warped and twisted and determined biochemical process, takes an assault, not only on the cancer, but on the body, on its most basic, regenerative elements:  skin, hair, digestive tract, mucus membranes, hormonal system, nerves, bone marrow.  How can it not in turn assault the spirit, too?  It strips away.  But in that is an opportunity.  My skin and hair are new now.  And maybe my spirit can be too.  In moments, I feel miles from nowhere.  Miles from that friend, that breath, that water, that healing.  I’m sometimes lost.  I’m deep inside myself, curled up like a fiddlehead.  I want to be safe, and I don’t know how, so I hide.  I don’t reach out.  When friends ask how I am, I respond, “I’m great.  Better every day.  I’m pretty much back to normal.”  But it’s not true.  I’m miles from “normal.”  I’m curled up on a mountain slope, in the crook of a rock, in a place between the old and new normal.  My friend Margaret, spending time with me at the writers’ conference, described me as “cagey,” told Craig I seemed shell-shocked.  That’s the fern, not yet ready, stretching up into the sun.  Healing occurs in the solitude of the mountainside.  But a fiddlehead grows in a glade of others, also curled in on themselves.  

“Where do you think we should go?”  Craig asks.  “Where do you think the whales are?”

“Maybe north,” I say.  “Let’s go north.”

As we throttle up and steer in that direction, Cat Stevens sings above the diesel’s thrum.

“The answer lies within.  So why not take a look now.”

We find the whales.  The answer:  curled within.  The answer:  the welcome of animals who are my friends.  Both are healing.

A Green and Healing Place: Part 1: A is for Artichoke

I'm just back from a trip in Prince William Sound, and as before, I'll post several installments from that 12 days.  Here's the first.

18 June

A strange day, with a lot of “L’s” in it, full of lassitude, a wallow of a day:  lazy, languid, lethargic, listless, lingering, lumbering, low, slow, lulled, long.  A day that seems to hold me in its mouth like a lozenge.  Slowly, I dissolve.

It’s been over 16 hours since Craig stumbled out of the bunk at 4:30 am this morning to pull anchor and begin the journey across the Gulf of Alaska into Prince William Sound, and on up to Hinchinbrook Entrance.   A swell ran in the Gulf.  Dense clouds hunkered over the mountains.  I slept until 9, got up, drank water, and dove back into the bunk for another nap.  I’m still catching up on sleep after the writers’ conference last week.

Last night, we anchored in Sunny Cove, on Fox Island, at midnight, after driving mad-dash from Homer, charging through Fred Meyer for groceries, barely making the fuel dock before it closed.  After filling the boat with fuel and water, we drove straight out of the harbor, no time to post anything to the blog, to mail the cards I’d written on the drive over.  We have just twelve days.  My sister and family arrive for a visit on the 30th.  Not a moment to waste.  After five days of writers’ conference, two days to catch up and rest after, I resented the rush.  While Craig drove, I unpacked groceries, organized food drawers, wiped down the counters and refrigerator, still grimy from Craig’s “boy’s” research trip alone and with our friend Dan the week before.  Wind-chop slapped at the boat’s hull, Finally I slunk down into the bunk and curled up beside Craig’s duffle bag and fumed.  I just wanted to be home for longer than a week!  I needed some space!  After awhile, like a sullen bear, my gloom spent, I re-emerged to put away the last of the groceries and clear the table for supper.  Craig was steaming two artichokes.  It was the first day of my three-week long cleanse.  After anchoring, we sat at the dinette and ate our ‘chokes in silence, Craig’s dipped in a mixture of melted Earth Balance buttery spread and olive oil, mine plain.  We tossed the tooth-marked leaves into a stainless steel bowl.  How could I stay grumpy eating an artichoke heart?  I tossed my mood out the window.  Waves shushed the steep gravel beach of the horseshoe-shaped bay.  Whatever I thought my life should be, this was it now.  We brushed our teeth and crawled into the bunk for a few hours sleep. 

Now it’s overcast, everywhere I look a different cloud-shape.  Some like flattened lenticular lenses.  Some stretched thin like bed-sheets worn to transparency by decades rubbing against bodies.  Some like scatterings of fish scales (called mackerel sky).   Above the ridgeline of Montague Island, incidental wads like tufts pulled off a moose’s coat in spring.  Everywhere I look, a different color, thickness, texture, like the sky can’t make up its mind.   The sky is today, like me, one big half-dissolved lozenge held in the damp mouth of an enormous slumbering, languorous beast.  A day lived inside that beast’s dream.

Craig’s curled up in the bunk under the comforter napping, dead to the world up here in the cabin.  I’m driving, and it’s 8:30 pm, and we’re still a good hour away from anchoring in Rocky Bay.  I get up from the seat and turn the little knob on the autopilot, angling the boat east, toward Montague Point.  I lift the binoculars and scan the water for whales, scan the shoreline for brown bears.  This morning, at the south end of Elrington Passage, the entrance to the Sound, I spotted a large black bear pawing and nosing something on the beach.  When it heard our engine, it looked up and stared dead-pan at the boat for several moments like an old man disturbed from his raking by a souped-up, sub-woofer-throbbing carload of teenagers driving by.  Then the bear, in slow motion, turned and ambled straight into the ryegrass and alder, not looking for any opening, just pushing through the thickness of green.  For that bear, I imagine, openings are everywhere.  The whole world, one big opening.  Despite its unwelcoming glare, Craig called it “the welcome bear.”  After a name the tour boat operators in Resurrection Bay affix to a certain killer whale pod each spring, the “welcome pod,” the one that swims out to meet incoming pods.  As opposed to the “host pod,” a name that came to Craig it a dream.  It’s what we call the pod that takes up a month-long residence in the king salmon fishing hot spot between Agnes Bay and Bulldog Cove and entertains the incoming pods.  We poke fun at these terms, but the thing is, they’re kind of true.  I don’t know about the welcome bear, though.

And now, the boat cruises past the overturned bleached aqua hull of a boat washed up on Montague’s shore; it’s been there for decades.   We’ve just passed, aptly, Graveyard Point.  Natoa’s bow rises and falls slightly in the ocean swell cornering around Montague’s northeastern corner. 

Unbearlike, I search for an opening in the sky, which, since I last examined it, has changed.   Now it looks like old felt, pulled thin here, torn there, bunched up yonder.  A bleary blot of brightness marks the position of the sun.  Light patches the Chugach range in places with the grain, gleaming tan of browned butter.  The snow line’s retreated up the sides of Montague Island a lot since last time we were here, I notice.  It doesn’t seem possible all that snow can melt in May’s 40 degree temperatures, but it always does.  Now it’s spring, temperatures up the 50’s.  Not early spring, like last time.  A few days from the summer solstice.  A day that makes Alaskans a little sad.

I get up again to check the Nobeltech chart on the computer screen, then stir a small pot of chowder on the stove:  razor clams Craig dug from a beach north of Homer, king salmon caught by my friend Rich, and halibut from our freezer, along with potatoes and carrots and kale from last summer’s garden, and from the store, white wine, onion, broccoli, corn.   I made the chowder for dinner the other night.  We sat out on the deck in the sun, Lars, me, Craig, our neighbors Asia and Carl and a poet who’s staying on after the writers’ conference, Nickole.   Chowder and bread from Two Sisters’ Bakery and salad, and for dessert, I ran out to the garden with a paring knife and cut off a few stalks of rhubarb for a sauce to pour over vanilla ice cream.  Lars, who’s decided to try to be a vegan this summer (after 21 years as a dedicated carnivore) gave in and ate dessert with us.  We sprawled around the living room like brown bears on a beach after a good whale carcass feed.   Contentment.  

I’m thinking about food a lot as I’ve finally started the cleanse my naturopath suggested, to detox what’s left of radiation and chemo and the rest from my body.  She’s been watching the temperatures in Homer, and finally it’s warm enough, she thinks, for me to begin.  So I squeeze 45 drops of a detox tincture into my water bottle twice every day, and first thing in the morning, blend up a smoothie of special vitamin and protein powder with frozen kale and raspberries from last summer’s garden, along with oat milk and a banana and a dash of flax seed oil.   It’s not a fast.  Just gluten and dairy and sugar and caffeine-free, and for one week, in the middle, no animal protein of any kind, and no legumes.   So I think about the things I miss.   My cups of strong green tea.   My morning mug of milky, honey-sweetened matte or chai.  The jolt of energy from the caffeine.  Our neighbors’ duck eggs fried in a pan, the big orange yolk spreading across my plate.  And think, is this really necessary?  Food, so elemental.   Such comfort.

One of the writers teaching with me at the conference was my graduate school mentor Frank Soos, a tall, gangly, athlete and short-story writer who biked all the way from Fairbanks to Homer in eight days for the conference.  Frank has a brother nicknamed “Moose,” so the physique must run in the family.  He told me a “nifty” (his word) trick for insomnia:  starting with “A,” try to think of a poet for every letter of the alphabet, and see if you make it to Z.  It works!  A.  Ai.  B.  Baudelaire.  C.  Carson.  D.  Dove.  E . . . This afternoon, after reading about the evocative power of taste in a book about writing creative non-fiction by another conference presenter, Brenda Miller, I tried the sleep meditation with food. 

A.  Apple.  My mind spun and wheeled like an eagle, a Granny Smith in its claws.  I thought of my grandmother, a Latvian peasant, who picked apples from under our neighbor’s tree, cut them into rings, and dried them in our oven.  Which led to the smell of dried apples in coffee cans.  To my mother’s apple bread.  To our snowshoe hare-murdered apple trees.   To my father spraying his apple trees with poison from a hand pump.  To bins of apples in the Latvian market, sold by old, round, Polish ladies in babushkas.  Babushka.  B.  Bread.  My mother’s black bread hot out of the oven, sliced, steaming, melted butter pooling in the crevices.  My father slathering butter thick on his bread for breakfast, slicing salt pork, sprinkling salt all over it, eating head down with a grim determination.  B.  Butter.  Bacon.  Bread.  C.  No, not cancer, but currants.  Red currant jelly in my mother’s cellar pantry.  Picking red currants with my mother and sister under hot sun in the back yard in summer.  Fingers stained red.  Forefinger and thumb around the tiny stem.  The taste of a berry, its part-wine, part-tart, part-sweet taste bursting in my mouth.  In Homer, picking red currants in autumn, in the rain, in our back yard.  Straining them through a food mill.  Making jelly with minimal sugar.  Because of such withholdings (lard, sugar, salt), never being able to live up to my mother as a cook.  Wondering if our kids will wish they’d learned more from their mother, father and me.  The way I wish that I’d asked her, when I could, “Mom, let’s make klimpu zupa together so I learn how.”  Klimpas = Dumplings.  D.  The paste of flour and water in a bowl, my mother standing over the steaming soup pot, dropping dollops of batter on to of the froth, the bobbing dumplings, their slippery surface on my tongue, the dense floury plainness, comfort food.  C.  Cleanse.  D.  Desire.  C.  Cleansing away all so the desire for food, my food, my body’s food, my spirit’s food, rises to the surface like klimpas.  E.  Eva’s body, restored to original fortitude, F.  And grace, G.  (And now I fall asleep).    

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nipple Remarkable

A bit of a longer post, as I'm pasting below an essay I read at a faculty reading of the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference the other night.  It's been a recovery day after five days of intense teaching, learning, listening, talking, absorbing, sharing -- a literary overload.  This was the tenth annual, and I've taught and helped organize every one, except last summer's.  Last summer, while my writing community gathered on the end of the Homer Spit, I roamed the halls of chemo-land.

I began writing this essay last fall, and then I put it aside.  Thinking about what to read, I looked at it again, then asked my friend Margaret, a poet, what she thought.  "I think this is something you can only truly say in poetry," she said.  Those words lit a little fire in me, and I spent every spare moment after that madly revising, cutting out the narrative, explanatory parts, trying to let something underneath story and explanation speak -- the poetry -- another voice, another music, and I hope a deeper truth.  Reading it aloud to a room full of writers and friends was otherworldly and cathartic.  But it seemed to only walk me to the edge it, and to remind me that catharsis is a long term, ongoing process.  A bigger process than I imagined a year ago.  


As I trudge around my sister’s Cape Cod yard in the dark, trying to walk off chemo’s nausea and reflux, trying to breath past the spike in my throat, I recite in my head a mantra of names from a loved place:  Lucky Bay, Iktua Bay, Squire Island, Point Helen, Green Island, Long Channel, Dangerous Passage, Danger Island.  But names alone can not displace the power of the new language, strange, dense syllables lapping their colorless syllables into my ear.  Nor the new sensations:  my body, sliced, stitched, bandaged, pierced, infused, irradiated, pricked, transfused, staged, anesthetized.  Chemo-brained, nerve-numbed, de-marrowed.  My body yellowed, smocked, defrocked, and though deflowered and defoliated, nonetheless, by some, pinked.  Pinned, beribboned.   On breast cancer chat rooms you find women at all hours asking advice about side-effects, answering, storying, worse-case scenario-ing, signing off with their new names.  When I moved alone into my first Alaskan cabin, uneasy in the woods with a door that wouldn’t lock and a guy on a snowmachine in the cabin next door, for the phone book listing, I renamed myself Inanna Ivins.  Thinking it it would keep me safe.  Who are you, IDC, 2. 5cm, nodes, ER/PR, positive, positive? 

Close your eyes, slow your breathing.  Imagine on a picnic table a sheet of paper held in place by a magnifying glass.  Walk to the table.  Sit down, pick up the paper, try to decipher a language brute and unfamiliar:  stitch short = superior, long = lateral.  A right breast mastectomy without an axillary tail measures 18.0 x 17.0 x 5.0 cm. It weighs 339 grams. The specimen is oriented with long and short sutures that designate the lateral and superior margins respectively. An ellipse of tan skin is present located centrally.  The skin is unremarkable. The areolar measures 3 x 3 cm and the nipple measures 1.5 x 1.3 cm and is grossly unremarkable.   Like seeds, spit the words out of your mouth.

I meditate upon it – No – I study it.  No.  I deconstruct.  I read it again and again, ciphering out clues, searching for what I might have missed.  Only after months do my eyes land on that world:  grossly.  Close your eyes.  Breath.  Count backwards from ten.  Imagine a text, a page torn from a tome, lying on a picnic table in Nickerson Park in the sun.  95 degrees in the shade.  A page.  Crumbs.  A blue jay.  Burn ring from a magnifying glass on the page.  A sudden, hot gust lifts it up, carries it away, into the woods.  Does someone chase after it?  Does it land face-down in Cliff Pond?  Whose face appears reflected beside it?  IDC 2.5 cm, nodes,ER/PR, positive, positive is that you?

Other phrases, like “early stage” I roll around in my mouth with like-minded others “curative,” “survival.”  Early maybe, but still she’s “invasive,” she’s grade 3, aggressive,  she’s only stage 2, but still, not zero, not one, like some of those luckies chatting on Breastcancer.doc whose first names are all DCIS.  The sisters in situ.  IDC, she trespasses, colonizes.  Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.  The most common, unremarkable form of the disease.  No.  That is not my name.

Treatment:  a cookbook recipe: surgery, chemo, radiation, hormone therapy.  On the ultrasound image, the tumor gray, barely distinguishable from the surrounding normal, fibrous tissue, a nodule sprouting tendrils.  In the pathology report, it’s described as a 2 cm spiculated mass.  My mind reaches past the pathological lingo to a place I love Imagine a place where you feel safe, Prince William Sound, for metaphor, the familiar made strange, the strange, familiar, safe.  In Prince William Sound, in late summer, rain falls nearly every day.  Storms are waterfall makers.  The saturated, mossy earth can’t hold all the moisture and it plunges down the granite cliff sides and rills, white with oxygen, into the sea.  Tiny coves where we anchor turn viscous and green, and from a kayak, I can dip my cup into the freshwater lens and drink ions of alpine tundra, avalanche slope, muskeg.  Lion’s mane jellyfish, as if called by the sound of rushing water to a death fugue, aggregate near stream outfalls and die en masse.  Their red-orange bodies whiten.  Ghost-like, they drift and disintegrate, their tentacles dragging along the rocky bottom, tangling in eelgrass. 

The tumor’s tendrils twine, creep toward the lymph node under my arm.  After surgery, some pathologist typed out the words I read again and again:  “nipple grossly unremarkable.” The ghost-jellies of the Sound eventually dissolve in the sea, are reabsorbed.  The ghost-jelly in my breast, and the breast itself, and that grossly unremarkable nipple, are who-knows-where and so I

imagine a safe, loved place.  Drag your kayak up the beach and tie it to a log.  Slog through the muskeg behind the pond where wild irises grow and your boots sink into sphagnum and mud.  Enter the forest and climb the steep bank to the big hemlock.  Over  twenty years you’ve cried into its lichen-encrusted bark, nails dug into moss, gales hissing through the branches.   Sit with your back against the trunk.  Listen to the hermit thrushes and fish crows and waves slapping the beach below.  Sense someone there.  Look around to see arriving a black bear, a deer, a river otter, an eagle, an owl.  Put your hand to the flank of the bear.  Breath in the musty stench of skunk cabbage, den, and fawn.  Imagine her fierceness as cure, how it passes into you through your palm and travels up your right arm to the scar. 

Walking on a deserted beach called Crow’s Pasture with Lauren, who’s nine years post (I don’t know her other name, I’ve never asked), we find a knife in the sand.  Knife with a red plastic handle and a retractable blade, a fisherman’s knife.  And a few steps away, three square plastic dice.  Instead of odds, these dice spell out “sly.”  Knife, the surgeon took away my breast, so what to do with you? 

Imagine a place you love.  A stream bed littered with bleached, eyeless salmon bodies, you kneel over the carcass of a coho, fresh, a red-handled knife in your hand.  Beside you a black bear teaches you how to eat, how to replace your body, cell for cell.  Start with the head, he says.  Start with the brain.
Chemo leaves me bald and yellow-nailed, like a punk rocker, a chronic smoker.  Is that because Cytoxan is derived from mustard gas?  A thin layer of my face, Dijon brown, rubs off in the shower.  Skin so dry, I go through a bottle of Vitamin E oil in a week.  Months later, I stand in front of a mirror, my fingers tracing my skin’s new leaves, my head’s white, infantile fluff.

On a meditation CD, a woman named Bellaruth Naparstak with a soothsayer’s voice, instructs me to visualize in my body an army of fierce and hungry white cells and I, its commander.  I close my eyes and hear, like a hive of bees, beneath the sluice of blood pulsing in my ears, the thrumming horde in my bone marrow.  I command.  When the fierceness dies within me, I imagine killer whales swimming all through my body, echolocating down the channels of lymph and blood, cornering cancer cells, searching them out, cancer's traces, not syllables now, but a broken alphabet, killer whales ushering them out.

Despite the pink language of hope, the green language of survival, the white language of statistics and stages, one red word overshadows every other.  On the mudflats in the Sound, a crab, a sidewise scuttling creature, is comical, tentative, quick to retreat under a rock or frond.  Cancer is no such animal.  Cancer is sly.  A red-handled knife.  Three dice tossed in the sand, spelling out my name.  Not Innana, not IDC.  In the gray language of fear.

Imagine a stream.  Amid rocks and blue-black piles of bear scat, salmon carcasses litter the grass, their faces chewed off by river otters and bears, their eyes gouged out by gulls.  Get on your knees and sip the water from the stream like a deer.  Drink until your jaws ache, until chemo's heat in your body cools.  Then lie face down.  Place your face on a swath of sea paper stretched between grass blades, studded with tiny snails and woven with eel grass.  Breathe in the smell of salt and decay and damp stones.  Clutch grass in your fists.  Know you could die right here, right now, today, and it would be okay.

Red again.  The rash begins along the rib bone below the scar.  It spreads up to my neck, ruby regalia, wild fire.  Every morning, I drape a washcloth soaked in ice water across the burn before stepping into the shower.  Every afternoon I walk through the three-inch thick door with its radiation hazard sign.  I lie on my back on a cold slab, a warmed blanket over my body.  I'm held in place by a plastic form, my arms overhead, hands gripping a metal bar, feet gently bound with a strap while the technicians measure me with a little plastic ruler and call out numbers.  Now I am "99” and “1.5-2.2 deep with MLC”.  As the table rises and shifts, and laser lights draw red lines across my chest and on the walls.  Then the technicians say, “We’ll be right back,” flick on the overhead fluorescent lights, and leave me alone.  Me and my shadow, the depthless eye over my left shoulder. I counted breaths as the machine clicks and buzzes.  Shouldn't this sting?  Burn?  I keep my eyes closed.  Remember, I tell myself, Bellaruth, how she said remember    

to breathe.  Imagine looking into a deer’s eyes.  Imagine the cool light of the moon.

Half-way through radiation, my husband and I take our bikes on the ferry to Nantucket for a weekend.  Biking around the island one morning, I find a dead deer beside the path.  She lies on her side, her black liquid eye looking past my shoulder at the pale blue sky of autumn, at a translucent wedge of moon.  I kneel by her side and touch her forehead and her cheek.   Craig, ahead of me, doesn't notice, bikes on.  Surreptitiously, I slip my hand in my pocket and feel for my cell phone.  I photograph her, I don’t know why, and feel strangely ashamed.  Why are you so damn morbid?

The machine rotates again.  Its rows of metal teeth shift expressions.  After the last zap, the teeth make a strange fluttery sound, like frozen butterfly wings falling on crusty snow.  It clicks off, the eye closes.  I lower my arms.

Imagine first snow falling on the body of the deer, melting in the pool of its skyward-facing eye.  Imagine yourself held inside that water, blessedly cool, a secret inside your own pocket.

Waiting for surgery, I felt tender toward my breast.  At night, I placed my left hand on the lump and my right hand on my heart and imagined compassion flowing from right to left, from heart to breast.  I wept for it.  By day, I ate kale, tumeric, garlic, flax oil.  During Bikram yoga, my hands slid across my yoga matt; my sweat smelled toxic.  Imagine a dolphin guiding the cancer out of your body, back to source, Bellaruth Naparstak said through my Ipod earbud every morning.  Be gone, be gone, chanted the energy healers.  I felt empowered.  But as the weeks wore on, the terror of the spiculated mass grew beyond the tenderness and effort.  I’m done, I thought, every time I looked in the mirror after a shower.  Bring on the surgeon.  Bring on the red-handled knife.  Take this pound of flesh away from me.  When I awoke from anesthesia and looked into my surgeon’s eyes, I didn’t ask, “Was it in the lymph nodes?”  I said, “Thank God it’s out of my body.”  I didn’t ask, “Where is it now, my breast?”  In the hospital room, I stared down at the gown, where it lay flat across the bandage.  Where my breast had been was an absence.  No pain.  No sensation at all.  The bliss of disappearance.

Only later, when I read the pathology report, when I read those words, “nipple grossly unremarkable,” I wondered who had dissected it.  I wondered where he’d taken the remains.  I mourned the breast then, its fate.  I heard later about a woman who asked for her breast, and got it, and in a ceremony, placed it at the bottom of a deep hole into which her friends planted an apple tree.  That summer, when I stood in the outdoor shower and stared at myself in the mirror and ran my fingers along the scar, I thought about that breast, that nipple.  What place did they take it to, that mound of caressed,  abused, longed for and rejected flesh?  The hospital incinerator?  A freezer?  A dumpster?  That breast with all its stories and longing.  Marked.  Remarked upon.  Unremarkable.  Unable to remark.   Who-knows-where is as good as nowhere.  I would like to have taken it to Prince William Sound, that loved, safe place.

And then I realized that I could take it there, and I did.  And do.

Imagine a place, a place so powerful you refuse to utter its name.  You call it by another name, the center of the labyrinth, the place where the essence of the Sound rises up as mist, spills from the waterfall as clots of foam, mingles with sea grass to form paper, enters your body as breath.  A place that knows your true name.  The place where, once, you died, and it was okay.  Kayak to the waterfall, where the jellyfish and salmon steady themselves in the current.  From your pocket, pull out the breast.  Put your lips to the nipple.  Hold it in your palm as you submerge your hand in the water.  Let it go.  Watch it turn green as it drops to the bottom and disappears beneath the jellyfish and salmon.    


Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Glacier, the Moose, Tigger, and the Lynx

“Live your life as an experiment.”  Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Some mornings, after a night wrestling with insomnia, I wake up worried.  I’ve jumped back into life, the big woods of it, with both feet.  I don’t emulate the winter moose with its deliberate gait.  I pounce like a lynx, like Tigger, from place to place, from task to task.  But within, an inexorable process moves along at glacial, pace, the pace of evolution, the pace of healing.  I keep using the word “disconnect” or “discontinuity” or “rift” to describe what this feels like, my inner and outer worlds not in synch.  The moose and the lynx.  Tigger and the glacier.  Part of me feels younger than ever, part of me older.  The other morning was like that.  I called Craig at his office to talk.  I’d woken up stuck between a glacier and a fast place, and the crevasse I was in was dark. 

It’s not a new crevasse.  It’s a place I’ve fallen into from time to time, all of my life.  Afraid to fail at whatever goal or expectation I’ve set for myself, I freeze.  I huddle in paralysis, and utter words I don’t really mean:  “I don’t deserve a second chance.  I’m a loser.  I’m a fuck-up.  I’m going to blow it.  Etc.  Craig’s heard it all before.  “Do you really believe that?” he asked me yesterday.  “I want you to answer truthfully.  Because if you do, then that’s a big problem, and you’d better get help.  But if you don’t, then saying those things is just a cop-out.”  He threw a line down into the crevasse, and reluctantly I took it and begin the climb out.  On my way up, we talked about his own struggle to come to terms with being inside a 59 year-old body, still fit, but less resilient.  “No one wants to face these changes,” he says.  “We’re both dealing with similar things, you probably ten years earlier than necessary because of breast cancer.”  I tell him about a book my friend Dave gave me up in Fairbanks, Ram Dass’ Still Here.  It’s his latest book, written after after his stroke, which forced him to face mortality before he was “ready.” 

“I’m not really ready for this book,” I said, as I walked up the stairs, the phone pressed to my ear, into the bedroom.  I sat on the bed and picked it up.  “Well, everybody’s got books on their shelves they’re not ready to read,” Craig said.  I opened it at random to a section titled “Grace and Disease.”  I skimmed through it.  “Listen to this,” I said.  

Ram Dass writes: “About ten years ago, the MacArthur foundation gave one of its “genius awards” to a wonderful fellow named Michael Lerner, who works with people diagnosed with cancer.  His description of what he would do if faced with a cancer diagnosis seems to me extremely helpful: ‘I would pay a great deal of attention to the inner healing process that I hoped a cancer diagnosis would trigger in me.  I would give careful thought to the meaning of my life, what I had to let go of and what I wanted to keep.’”

Lerner’s list goes on, with both practical matters and heart matters:  “I would give careful thought to choosing a mainstream oncologist … I would use conventional therapies that offered a read chance for recovery, but I would probably not use experimental therapies or therapies with a low probability of success that were highly toxic or compromised my capacity to live and die as I choose.  I would use complementary therapies . . .  I would use traditional Chinese medicine, both herbs and acupuncture . . . I would strive for life and recovery, with every possible tool and resource I could find . . .”

At that point in reading the list to Craig, I started to cry.  “Gee,” Craig said, a tad ironically.  “It sounds like all the things you’ve done.”  I kept reading.

“I would spend time with people I value, and with books, writing, music, and God . . . I would try to live my life in my own way.  I would try to accept the pain and sorrow inherent in my situation, but I would look searchingly for the beauty, wisdom, and the joy.”

“I guess I’m not such a fuck-up after all,” I choked out.

“Imagine that,” Craig said.

That list rescued my day from darkness and grief.  It was like a hand on my forehead reminding me to stay on the path.  Life on earth, in the practical, everyday sense, is often at odds with a healing journey.  It’s hard to hold one foot in each world – the glacial world, the cell phone world – and maybe it’s inevitable to fall in between at times.   Each day, I rebuild my life after breast cancer dismantled it, rebuild it anew.  Preparing for a workshop I’m teaching at this weekend’s Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference (definitely a Tigger-on-a-cell phone enterprise), I came across a quote by writer Philip Gerard. “The ancient Greeks understood that it’s not enough to destroy the world; you have a responsibility to rebuild it, to set the stars back in the heavens, to restore order to the universe.”  I’m no god; the world is my own.  It’s not enough to stamp my foot and say “I’m not going to live the old way.”  And I can’t set the stars back in their old places.  I’m striving for a new order, but my tools are rudimentary, basic even crude.  Words.  These seem to be my primary tools.  

Other words, those of my Fairbanks friend Jon, in an e-mail, gave me something else to consider about the glacial process of healing.  He told me that our friend Susan said to him the other night, “It’s been eight months since Keith’s death, and it’s getting harder, not easier.”  Up in Fairbanks last weekend, Elli and I attended a potluck birthday party for Jon, at Susan and Keith’s log house, in a birch forest above Fairbanks.  Eight months ago, Keith, Susan’s husband, who was in his early fifties, died from brain cancer. 

In recent years, whenever I’d gone to Fairbanks to give a reading of my work, Keith and Susan had been there in the audience.  This was the post-cancer Keith, a different man.  Back in the days before his diagnosis, when I was a graduate student and wannabe ski mountaineer, I’d been intimidated by Keith.  He had what another friend called a “fierce intelligence.”  He was a professor at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, and a true ski mountaineer.  I never went on a trip with him.  In fact, no one but Jon could keep up with Keith.  They became climbing/adventuring buddies and best friends, and Jon sat by Keith’s side at the moment of his death.  The same friend who described his “fierce intelligence” told me that Keith could not only ski fifteen miles into the wilderness, but then climb a mountain and bivouac for the night part way up in a sleeping bag suspended from a sheer rock face. Keith was a scientist, an intellect, an athlete, an adventurer.  Tall, handsome, with a head of thick, sandy, tousled hair, he was on top of his game.   I couldn’t see past my own securities, so I never got to know the pre-cancer Keith.  But cancer changed him, cracked open his heart.  Spirit broke through.  When I talked to him after a reading, I sensed a softness in Keith.  When I look back now, I see that he’d slowed down.  He’d become a listener.  But then, in my pre-cancer incarnation, I didn’t know what to make of Keith’s cracked-open heart those years, not completely.  I just basked in the softness.  I think I know now.  And maybe he always was.  But when we’re young, we get dazzled by one another’s surfaces.  And so I’d missed it.  Or maybe, back then, his spirit truly came alive in the mountains.

This morning, after only six hours sleep, all the dark thoughts and fears were there.  I’d been thrown off the mountain of my life and sat there at the base, on a trail, looking up, not knowing how to begin climbing again.  Perhaps Keith’s post-cancer life shows me the way.  To climb back up by taking a slow, spiral path around the mountain, instead of assaulting it in one day.  To recognize that the mountain is myself.  To know that the mountain is connected to everything else, the air, the trees, the snow, the wind, the rain, others climbing, whether straight up, running, or crawling.  It’s extremely hard to live both inner and outer journeys that feel sometimes at odds.  How can I make the outer journey of my life, my work, the way I interact with others, my travels, reflect the inner more clearly?  So that now, when I meet another pilgrim on the way, someone with a cracked open heart, I’ll see underneath the dazzling surface to the glacial inward journey beneath, the journey we’re all on, even when we don't know it; I’ll be able to recognize that pilgrim soul and understand.