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.