Thursday, August 25, 2011

Making a Place of Repair Where We Live (or The Art of Getting Rid of Shit)

The August rains are here, a moody swath of cloud pulled across the sky above south central Alaska, the porch shiny with wet from a recent squall, the sheets limp on the line.  I sit at my desk after another bout of purging stuff from the house.  When I returned home after a year away for breast cancer treatment, I wrote in this blog of ransacking the house, emptying cupboards, sorting, tossing, recycling, releasing, a manic behavior that consumed me for days.  Now, I've done it again, albeit to a lesser extent, this time inspired by my stepdaughter Elli, who came home for her sister's wedding.  In two days she returns to Walla Walla, Washington to finish her last semester of college.  Last night, after dinner, after dessert at the neighbor's house, after tidying up the kitchen before bed, I wandered into her bedroom as I did so many times when she was a kid and teen.  Back then, I sat on her floor grading papers or reading while she did her homework, or I plopped on her bed to chat with her as she got ready for sleep.  In recent years, I sat with her as she sorted through boxes of papers and old journals.  This time, she did the major purge, pulling everything down from book and closet shelves.  Cardboard boxes on the floor are filled with what her mother and father call "dookie," saved things, detritus, much of it tiny, some of it broken or with pieces missing, from stuffed frogs to too-small t-shirts, to children's magazines, to jewelry boxes.  Finally, all of her high school class notes are in the recycling bin.  We've decorated the shelves and walls with the precious things, the ones too filled with story and memory to toss.  One drawer contains photographs.  Another, art supplies.  Yet another is a "hope chest" of mementos.  We stayed up until 1 am, unable to quit.  During a lull, I wandered into the kitchen and attacked the junk drawer.

It becomes compulsive, a kind of cleansing, what I want to do most of all with my own mind.  What to keep, what to save?  What matters?  What do I think matters, but really doesn't?  All three step-children are building their own lives now, the oldest married the other day, the shelves of Eve and Eivin's two-room cabin crammed with new pottery and kitchen gadgets.  In Lars' closet, I have placed a box for kitchen stuff for the two-room cabin that he built this summer on his mother's land.  Our lives, no matter our age, are ever in the process of transformation and recreation, revision, a constant salvaging, rearranging, reconfiguring.  This is who I am, and this is what matters now, we seem to say with our saved things, the things we tuck away in boxes, bury, or release.  Writing is like that too.

 Today, I received an e-mail from a poet friend.  When I was a graduate student, she came to Fairbanks and read from her then-new poetry collection, Divine Honors, which she wrote after undergoing breast cancer treatment.  At the time, I didn't imagine I'd one day share that experience.  In my thirties, a vegetarian living close to wilderness in Alaska, the idea of cancer was just that, an idea, someone else's stupid idea.  What stuck with me from her craft talk about her book was the way she used a shattered, fragmented form of poetry to mimic the shattered, fragmented, piecing-back-together process of her recovery.  Maybe she's the first artist who showed me how form, in art, can be an essential part of meaning, giving the inexpressible a way to emerge on a page.  And perhaps that's why I constantly revise my poems, my essays, and my house.  In her email, she wrote that "twenty years, many books, a good marriage, and now a new life have barely touched the cancer experience . . . I've been well since and send you the shelter of that news."  I do indeed find shelter in both pieces of news.  I find shelter in knowing that there is nothing strange in the strong presence of my own cancer experience a year later; I see it always out of the corner of my eye, constantly changing shape, adding its particular texture and scent and mood to my days.

I look around my writing room, at all of the things I choose to save, and at the form of the room itself, which once sheltered my newly married step-daughter.  It still holds a bit of her energy.  In a corner, in a laundry basket, surrounded by "sea paper" I collected from the edges of a pond in Prince William Sound a couple weeks ago (sea paper:  an amalgam of sea weed, seeds, and fiber peeled of the rocks and grass), nestled among those earthy sheets is the torso cast of my pre-breast cancer body.  I find myself moving that torso cast around often, from here to there.  Sometimes I think I'll bring it into the woods and leave it wedged in a tree to dissolve away in the fall rains.  Sometimes I hide it in the closet.  Today, it's poking out of the basket, resembling something collected and meant to put away, like clean laundry.  No matter where it ends up, physically, an essential aspect of it will endure.

A few years after Divine Honors, my poet friend, whose name is Hilda Raz, edited a book called Living on the Margins:  Women Writers on Breast Cancer.  In the introduction, she says:  "This book represents a community of workers talking to each other, helping each other, making language serve new imperatives, which is what writers do.  We're a community engaged in the same task, making a place of repair where we live."  Yes, I see it now:  writing is an act of repair as well as creation.

And perhaps this act Elli and I engaged in last night and again today is also a kind of repair.  We consider what no longer works for us, is no longer a useful metaphor, no longer represents our evolving selves, and we give it away.  We revise, we revision, and with some things, we repurpose.  The heart of our experience, the joyful, the catastrophic, even the mundane, which is represented brokenly, incompletely, by those saved things, emerges, clearer, like the air after rain.  Knowing that, we go ahead and discard all the "dookie," sure that the important stories remain.      

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Map

This morning, steady rain.  The tops of birch trees tousling around in the wind of a storm passing through.  A big gust just this moment sets all the leaves to shivering.  It's been a run of endings and beginnings, my stepdaughter's wedding, the death of a friend's mother from lung cancer, the death of my 90 year-old friend Shirley's beloved, the death of P, an artist I know, of ovarian cancer.  Another friend spent a day enduring scans to see if a rare breast sarcoma had spread anywhere else in her body (it hadn't, and so she begins a second round of chemo).

A few days ago, a small group of friends and family released the ashes of P (the artist who had ovarian cancer) into the ocean.  From one of those friends, I learned that P, on the last day of her life, asked her husband to go out to their garden and pick a bouquet of flowers for Shirley, as condolence for the loss of her beloved.  P's husband suffers from dementia, and didn't remember the way to Shirley's house, so P drew him a map.   A squiggly line from P's house to Shirley's.  B followed it.  He knocked on Shirley's door, presented her the flowers.  She invited him inside for tea, and when he left, he left the map behind.  He found his way back to P without it.  The next day P died.

After hearing the story of the map, I went to yoga class.  Afterward, despite the fact that my house was full of visiting family, despite my desire to be the perfect hostess and make them breakfast, despite all the pre-wedding chores on my list, I decided to follow P's map.  How could I not?  The flower in my own garden a bit bedraggled by all the rain, I stopped at Forget-Me-Not.  The proprietor hadn't even turned the lights on yet.  He hadn't even put all of the newly arrived flowers into the case.  They stood arrayed in vases on the table behind the counter, and with him, I picked out stems, invoking the colors of P's paint and fiber art palette, of Shirley's watercolors.  Purples, some pale, some deep.  Pale blues.  A sprig or two of maroon.  And then I drove up the Shirley's, following that map.  She was there with her son.  She was still in her bathrobe.  We sat in the living room, and she told me that she's two people now, the strong, public Shirley, and the private one, the one who walked over to her painting studio the other day, not to paint, but to blast a CD of sopranos singing arias, to play the music so loud, their cries of heartbreak, loss, agony, joy and despair emanated from her own body.  "But I'm all right," Shirley said.  "We were both ninety, we knew it was only a matter of time, one of us would go.  I was hoping I'd go first.  But you know, we made each other happy."  And then she told me about her idea for her next play.

There's a map P left behind, not to a place, not to a destination.  It's the map to a route, a way of living.  It's a map drawn by a woman on the last day of her life.  A day like any other day, a day of rain, a day of flowers.  A day of being fully alive, not just to self, but to one another.  I want to make my life a study of that map.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Moment Before the Rain

When I woke up this morning, I saw through a slit in the curtains a gray veil of sky.  Then heard the rousing of the house, the creaking of the stairs, my nephew turning in his sleep upstairs in the loft, the coffee grinder.  I wanted to savor the moment before I waded into the thick of it:  these last three days before my oldest stepdaughter's wedding, our house full of Craig's family.  It's to be a big Alaskan outdoor wedding in a hayfield on a bluff overlooking Kachemak Bay, on the homestead where Eve's husband-to-be grew up, about ten mile from our house.  Yesterday, Craig's brothers, sisters-in-law and I raked freshly mowed timothy grass as Craig ran the mower round and round the meadow under the two ancient birch trees, two trunks diverging from one thick base.  Because it's an outdoor wedding, because it's in a hay meadow, we've been checking the weather forecast for, well, I hate to admit it, weeks.  So this morning, before dressing, while still under the comforter, as the gray sky lowered, I checked the weather forecast.  Today:  continuous rain, some wind.  Tomorrow:  more rain.  Saturday:  well, chance of rain 80%.  But at that moment, none of that had happened.  Not one drop had fallen.  I got up, finally, and wandered downstairs, breathed the smell of fresh coffee in the press.  Last night, Misook, Sandra (my sisters-in-law) and I hung laundry on the line and draped it over racks and porch railings to dry.  The sky was gray, a gauze of rain out over the bay, approaching from Kodiak.  I went out to the porch in sock feet and started gathering in the laundry.  Still damp, so I hung jeans from the bannister, carried the racks to the woodstove, built a fire.  Still, no rain.  I walked back outside for another armload.  I listened to bird song.  I pressed my nose into the laundry, one of my favorite smells.  I built a fire in the stove.  When Misook and Sandra walked out to get the last clothes, a fine rain had begun.  And now it's falling steadily, through windless air, more water than air, actually.  The sky's hidden the mountains across the bay, the bay itself.  Now I'm back up in my bedroom writing, listening to that rain through the open window.  Listening to Craig talking on the phone, some logistical snarl about the wedding.  All I hear is his end of the conversation with Eve's younger sister:  "Oh my God.  Oh my God.  I won't say anything."  It has to do with the hay bales Eve wanted her wedding guests to sit on.  The rain falls now on the freshly mowed meadow.  The meadow just itself, without people, where nothing yet has occurred.

Where is all this going?  I've been thinking about all the moments in life we live before the big thing happens.  In yoga yesterday, in shivasana, fear overtook me like a fast, Cook Inlet tide.  Any ache or pain in my body, especially around the surgery site, under my arm, along my ribs, near the scar, twinges and tinglings and aches I feel every single day, especially before sleep, and just after waking, any strange physical sensation triggers fear:  Is it coming back?  Am I okay?  Sends my mind to reeling, seeing in front of my mind's eye the pathology report, analyzing it again.  Sometimes fear as big as a 986 millibar low.  Sometimes fear as big as a mountain.  Bigger fear than I have ever known, a fear that seems to come from the earth itself.  Maybe it's the archetypal fear we all share, the fear of death.  All from one tiny twinge.  A fear big enough to swallow this moment, the next.  In shivasana, corpse pose, yesterday, a phrase entered my mind, on the swell of that big fear:  No matter what's going on inside my body, at this moment, right now, lying here, nothing has happened yet.  It's the moment before the first drop of rain, the moment before the first daily crisis, the moment before the life-changing phone call, the moment before the big news, the big disappointment, the shock, the surprise, the jolt, the accident, the award.  It's the moment before I write the last word in my book.  This is the moment, the only moment, in which I live, in which I take my next breath.  It's mine.

So here goes the day, soon driving up the hill to help cut meat for the wedding into strips so my Korean sister-in-law can soak it in her special marinade.  Soon driving into town with my big shopping list.  Soon calling Eve's sister back to talk about our big to-do lists.  But right now, just one more second here, listening to the rain, the voices from downstairs muffled so I can't hear any individual words.  Fear again calmed down to a little cold creak always running through me now, always there, just below the surface of my life.  The next flash flood will come.  But that hasn't happened yet.  Never before has meditation, something I worked at for many years, made so much sense.  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Stand By Me

This morning, just before we're to leave for Seward and the boat, I open my e-mail and find two photos from my brother, from last summer.  Sometimes it feels unreal, that time.  But it was real, and these photos prove it.  And they prove something else about survival and love.  There's a poem somewhere out there with these words, and of course they say too much and not enough.  But I'll put them here anyway, because in this moment, they feel true:  "I am alive because you love me."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Big Dream, Big Loss, Big Healing

My blog-posting has become sporadic this summer, and here's why:  I'm immersed in my writing life.  I've been finishing my next two books, one a collection of poetry called Many Ways to Say It, and the other a memoir about my relationship to a lineage of killer whales in Prince William Sound, an extended family that's slowly going extinct.  I sent in a final draft of the poetry book last week.  And now I'm focused on the memoir, which I've been working on for a few years, and which is the hardest thing I've ever written.  At the end of the day, I often feel like I've been trying to push a mountain out of my way.

The memoir about the whales was one of the things I felt most strongly I needed to finish when I asked myself the question last spring, after my diagnosis:  What would you feel driven to accomplish if you had only one year to live?  In many ways writing the blog has been preparing the ground for this final push in writing the book.  In this blog, I weave the events and thoughts and observations of a day into meaning.  The strands come from every aspect of my life; in that way it's like a weaving or braiding.  And the book is evolving in the same way.  The book is about Prince William Sound, and a lineage of whales that centers its range there, and about my relationship to the whales and the place.  Prince William Sound is a place of constant change, a place of great loss and endurance.  It's the center of my compass rose, the place I return to again and again, my heart's home, my  heaven on earth.  Tomorrow, we go back there again for ten days.  It's the place from which all my writing flows.

When I returned from teaching at the writing residency in Anchorage two weeks ago, I felt inspired to write.  I'd have three weeks before the next trip out on the boat, and the house to myself part of that time.  The last talk at the residency, by writer Craig Childs, was called "Writing Like a Flash Flood."  Craig's a wonderful, 40-something madman who never stops writing in his tiny notebook, who absorbs experience like a sponge, who hikes like a mountain goat, who improvises readings and talks like a jazz musician, and who, in his spare time, chases flash floods in the desert southwest, which is his heart's home.  I mean literally chases.  Waits for rain to begin somewhere nearby (a big black cloud forming, touching earth), waits for the first trickle or the roar of an epic flood to pass by his feet, and then runs along side it (or even wades out into it) until he can run no more (meaning he comes to the edge of a canyon).  He used this "hobby" of his as an extended metaphor for writing:  the waiting, the patience, the acceptance of what comes (trickle or true flood), the persistence, and when the true flood comes, the commitment to the ride, the immersion, the letting go into the force of something greater than oneself.  I took his talk to heart, and returned to Homer  with the intention of wholeheartedly committing myself to the killer whale book, to the writing desk, but it's been difficult.  Many days, I've sat waiting for the flash flood.  Some days, I've spent hours squeezing words out of my brain like water from stones.  

It's been difficult writing this book from the beginning.  It's very much like being that figure out in the desert, and most days, a tiny cloud forms in the distance but disappears by afternoon.  Or the rain falls, but just a rivulet meanders down from the mountain and disappears into a crack in the rocky earth beneath my feet.  Or a flash flood grabs me by the ankles and drags me away for a few days and deposits me on some plateau, high and dry, and out of reach of water that a few hours before carried me along.  I've been thirsty and battered.  I've been bashing my head against a canyon wall, with the occasional hole punched through it, allowing some relief, a view to another landscape, some sense that I'm on the right track for a few pages. And then the wall closes in.  This book is the hardest thing I've ever written.  Partly it's because it's a book I'm under contract to write.  A literary agent heard me read about my relationship to this group of killer whales at a writing conference several years ago and took me aside and told me he wanted to help me get a book about out in the world.  I've studied those whales for 24 years.  Studying them changed my life.  I believe a biologist has a responsibility to the animals she studies.  So it's a story I think I "should" write on an intellectual level.   But it's story that I know I must write on a much deeper level.  And the two are at odds.  At least I thought they were.  So this book has been a bitch, a minotaur.

Remember the minotaur?  The labyrinth?  That old, old story?  One of the most beautiful descriptions of it I found in Mark Nepo's Book of Awakening.  It was in the entry for November 19, which I first read while still undergoing radiation, last fall.  Nepo writes:  “In Greek mythology, there is a story of a man, Theseus, who in order to find his way home, had to find his way through a labyrinth that led him to a dark center, where he had to kill a powerful beast, a Minotaur.  The only way he could return to the light of daily life was to trace back the thread he had unraveled on his way in, which was given to him by a kind woman, Ariadne.  Stories like this carry wisdom we must encounter if we are to become whole.  Each of us has a beast at center which we must confront if we are to live peacefully in our days.  But like Theseus, making our way back into the light is only possible if we retrace with kindness and love our dark way in.  This is how in giving myself away to be love, I finally, after years, arrive at the dark loveless center of that way, and the only way out is to follow the small thread of accepting who I am until it leads me back to where I began, except this time I weep to know my place in the world.”
Cancer was a minotaur for me  And recovery was finding my way home.  And if home is the heart, then it's been a strange journey, as it's led me to a new place, a new home, one I'm still coming to know and understand, as a human being and as a writer.  These last two weeks of writing, I've felt myself committed to my own path, my own life's work, in a new way.  At times, I've imagined myself standing on a shoreline watching old parts of myself, old self-undermining habits, distractions, floating away from me, carried by a tide.  I've imagined standing on the shoreline excited and also scared, afraid of letting those things go.  For one thing, the way, in the past, I've surrendered my writing time to whatever need or call from outside myself, from other people, has come along.  The last two weeks, I've stopped doing that.  I've come to my desk, and it's been the center of my life, this place where I sit right now listening to the rain as the light gets dim.

The other night, in the latest issue of The Sun magazine, I read an interview with a man who's studied and worked with dreams.  He had a series of vivid dreams right before he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  Those dreams were his body telling his brain that something was amiss.  Since that time, he's paid close attention to his dreams.  He talked about the difference between everyday dreams and "big" dreams or "healing" dreams.  The interviewer asked him how a person could cultivate the right mindset to invite those "big dreams."  He answered that one small step would be to ask for a dream about a particular problem right before sleep.  So I did that the other night.  The magazine actually fell to the floor beside me as I drifted off, and I slept very deeply until about 6 am, when I awoke from what felt like a very big dream.In the dream I was dying in a hospital like Beth Israel, in Boston, where I was treated for breast cancer.  I had gone there and allowed a doctor to spray me with bullets, my chest and my head.  That opening of the dream is fuzzy, but it was part of some bigger "plan," and I allowed it.  I consented.  I felt the bullets going in.  There was no bleeding on the outside, though.  The bleeding was internal.  We knew that I would die.  A nurse told me I had about 24 hours.  I felt no fear of the dying itself, and only watched it as a process.  What distressed me was the idea that I might die alone.  Craig was there at first and then he said he had to leave, to go to some family event in a church, perhaps his mother's funeral.  He left me, knowing I was dying.  It was distressing but then it didn't matter.  I observed my brain trying to let go, but there was a buzzing energy inside it, as though caffeinated.  I knew I'd have to let go of that energy to die.  There was a male nurse then, a hospice nurse, who also told me he was leaving for the night.  That's the moment in the dream when I panicked.  I said, "But aren't you supposed to stay with a person until she dies?"  He was matter of fact.  He had to leave.  "But I don't want to die alone!" I pleaded.  But he was unmoved and left me.  I was in a hospital bed.  Then I was on the floor, and I felt blood pooling inside me and it flowed out of my mouth.  But I still couldn't quite let go.  I sat up, a woman nurse helped me, and then another hospice nurse, a man with long blonde hair, came in and told me he'd be with me to the end.  I was so relieved, I cried.  The strange thing was, it didn't bother me that I was dying.  A little while later, I was walking with the woman nurse down a hall and toward the hospital lobby.  The whole front of the hospital was open, no windows no wall, and there was a city, light, sun, trees, people, traffic.  I was walking toward it and I felt the letting go in my mind I'd been waiting for.  I felt my brain release.  I collapsed on the floor.  I told the nurse, "Please call Craig on his cell phone and tell him I'm dying."  I gave her the number.  She dialed it, and she spoke to Craig's niece, who said he was up near the front of the church, and she couldn't get him.  I heard the nurse say, "But you have to get him.  You have to tell him that Eva's dying.  This is really important."  And as she said these words I felt myself letting go.  And then I woke up, halfway there, half-way released.  

I wasn't upset, really, or relieved that it was only a dream.  At first I was a little scared that the dream was telling me there was something physically wrong with me.  But then I remembered I'd asked for a dream about my writing.  I'd gone to bed feeling that I'd written myself into a snarl, a box canyon, and I couldn't find my way out, and the dream was telling me something about that.  I fell back asleep after awhile and dreamed I saw a little green heron for the first time in my life.  It was swallowing a frog.  I raised my arms and it flew off.  

And when I woke up, I went to my writing desk and I wrote 5000 words.  I realized that I'd been trying to write in a way that was very unnatural to me, writing a story only about the past, and that the only way I'd finish the book was if I wrote it the way I've been writing my blog, knitting inside to outside, past to present, the whales to myself.  And perhaps it will be deeply flawed, a real mess, when the day comes to turn it in to Beacon Press, but the dream told me that I had to write it on my own terms, alone, with no help, no models, no male authors' books piled all over my desk.  I had to write it true to myself, not to any agent or editor or perceived audience.  I had to find my own voice, my own structure.  It was a minotaur, and the only way I could approach it was by following a thread from the present back into the past.

I keep going back to the wall of the hospital, open to the air.   I was walking toward some expansiveness bigger than me, and it was a city.  I was walking out of that death place, the hospital.  I asked myself, if my head and my heart have been riddled with bullets, injured, what's left to write with?  And I thought of that big opening.  Is it imagination?  Is it the seat of creativity?  Is it inspiration and thus spirit?  Is a new way of being?  That new heart I've been coming home to?  The old heart destroyed?  Craig kept saying to me:  "It sounds to me like the dream's telling you that you need to let go of something.  And you have to do it alone."

Two days after the dream, I lost 10.000 words of writing, the writing the dream inspired, from my computer.  After a near heart-attack, after five hours of trying and failing to retrieve the lost file, I realized I had to let it go.  I sat down and forced myself to continue as if those words had not been lost.  I realize now, it was a natural part of the story, the strange dream that is my new life.

Because of course the dream was about more than writing.  It was about life.  The cancer experience has opened something inside me, some possibility I'm walking toward.  I have to let go of many things on the way, though.  It's in many ways a solitary journey, but with so many pilgrims on parallel or intersecting paths, thank god.  Perhaps it's as simple as an awareness of my mortality.  I think of the title of a CD by musician Krishna Das, "Live on earth, for a limited time only."  Perhaps it's wanting to squeeze water out of every rock, to press words out of my heart, to seize every blessed and cursed moment, to chase every flash flood, to weave every experience into some kind of meaning.  To create a whole greater than the sum these seemingly disconnected parts that are the raw materials of my days and my stories.  Maybe it's why I'm tired, but still I'm sitting here at 10 pm listening to the rain fall on the birch leaves outside my writing room window and banging this out on my computer.  Maybe it's why tomorrow I go to Prince William Sound to search for a group of whales also alive on earth for a limited time only, loving them despite the heartbreak of losing them.  It's why their story and my story are intertwined.   So much will be lost.  Connection matters all the more for that.  It's what endures.