“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.