When I look out my windows right now, frrm the second floor, I can pretend it isn't September 13, isn't fall in Alaska. The treetops are green, shaggy birch heavy with a summer's growth. But then, a sign of the season: a red squirrel twists like a gymnast at the end of a branch, plucking little green birch cones for its winter hoard, bolts away. It lives behind our woodshed.
I've stepped away from the book I'm writing. I wrote myself into another box canyon, what's been a repeating part of my process all summer. Not writing at the cusp of season, when I'm stuck or blocked it's like mid-winter in my brain, and no sign of relief. No gain or loss of daylight. So I came here, to this blog, like an animal who creeps into its den, weary of effort. I wanted to transcribe in here a kind of dialogue I had with "God" out in Prince William Sound last week. How I wrote my way to a kind of scream, actually.
I've returned from my last trip to Prince William Sound for the season; twelve days under dense cloud cover, rained upon, weathered out by big storms twice, one with hurricane-force winds. We picked mushrooms, cooked up big panfuls of king boletes and hedgehog mushrooms and beach greens, wrote on our computers as the gusts spun the boat around the anchor, kayaked in drenching downpours, in water silty and green from runoff and melting glacial ice. Icebergs floated, translucent jade, fluted, a dozen miles from their homes. We fished bits out of the water for our coolers. Every day we could be searching, we found orcas, indifferent to the weather, it seemed, hunting salmon down the passages.
One of the first days out, we dropped off three 30 gallon plastic barrels of fuel at Whale Camp, for Olga, who studies humpback whales. Craig tipped the barrels off the boat's stern; I paddled to shore in the kayak, met them as they bobbed to shore, then dragged them up the beach (not far, it was low tide), up and over a log berm, behind a screen of ryegrass. Proud to do it all myself until I felt a little strain in my upper back, but nothing bad. I did some stretches on the beach, and then we hiked up the bluff searching for blueberries. And then the next day, a stormy one, sitting at the computer all afternoon, an ache started up under my arm, radiated into and around and out my left breast, a kind of nerve pain. Most likely, of course, a tweak form the barrel-dragging. And hey. Breast cancer rarely presents as pain. Well, mine did. But come on, lightning can't strike the same person twice, the exact same way (one side, then the other), right? Later that day, I wrote in my journal:
"Of course I am scared. I am scared every day, practically every hour. Would having had a baby protected me from breast cancer?' I'd just finished reading an essay called "The Shape of an Egg," which opens with a woman, early in the morning, holding her toddler's sleepy body in the bowl of her own. "I am sorry body," I wrote, "for all the years it took me to grow up, all the bumbling and fucking around, dawdling, wanting to be older or younger than I was and am. The ache is deep. I feel my breast and armpit continually, for a lump, a mass, a nodule. Fear pushes my fingers deeper, making my body ache all the more. All this as we head toward whale spouts in the morning sun, a humpback's white flipper glistening as it pauses in the air before smashing down. And killer whales up ahead, Craig yells down from the flying bridge. All the gifts of my life, all the reasons I want to live. All the longing."
"It is danger," an Athabascan woman said to the woman who wrote the essay. Meaning living, meaning love. And she is right.
The next day, anchored up in a storm, I wrote about the rest of that day:
"Yesterday I got so scared I just wept. The world seemed a hopeless place of misery. Where prayers cry out to a great indifference, even nothing. Where even the earth (as seen from afar on this boat out in Montague Strait miles from shore) offers no solace. The whales impossible to photograph. The swell pushing in against the tide, steepening the waves. My breast and chest and shoulder and armpit aching. I wondered, did this experience of breast cancer destroy my faith in something sacred, something listening and paying attention? Had prayer fallen away from me? Am I now an atheist???"
Then I read the words of Li-Young Lee, one of my favorite poets: "Somehow I feel like we have to participate in that Greater Will: we have to bargain with him or it, or denounce it, and somehow reaffirm it by our arguments ... Submission leads to complacency . . . Whether or not there is a Godliness and a sacredness in the world -- everything rides on that."
Yes, that's it for me, too, I thought. Sitting at the little table on the boat, I wrote on and on: "Is it enough to pray for courage, to face whatever comes? Is that all I can do? But where is that courage on a day when I'm overwhelmed by fear and lie on my side and cry like a wounded animal? No, it's not enough for me to simply pray for courage. I want mercy. I want my life. I want mercy for my friend Lauren. For little Bennett. Healing. Direct intervention. God damn it. It was a clear day yesterday when I was so scared, but clouds, high and thin, pulled over the Sound. Storm warning, the weather man warned. In the night, the first wind gust barreled down the mountainside and shoved the boat sideways, hit it broadside, a wall of wind, a huge hand. I fretted. I didn't think in that moment to pray, God, let the anchor hold. I wasn't afraid. I have faith in the mud below. The anchor over and over, year after year, ascending from the bottom of this bay covered in mud, gray mud glopping off the anchor tines onto the bow, good, sticky mud staining my hands, mud that holds. The storm this morning is like an answered prayer. I love it like a child loves God. It's fierce and strong, but I'm safe within it. I want to cultivate a faith that will carry me through fear, which comes on like a storm, but fear isn't something I can love like a storm. Li-Young Lee wrote that at some point he "gave up and began addressing the god he grew up with." The point is, perhaps, to give into that one faith -- whatever it is -- completely. If I don't nurture some kind of faith, fear will be my God. I won't be in Lucky Bay, but in the middle of the Gulf, the storm not a refuge, but a destroyer." Li-Young Lee also wrote "I don't mind suffering as long as it's really about something." That's it too. But no one will hand that meaning to me, what this is all about, it won't just show up at the end of a day. I have to dig for it, carve away layers of surface to reach it, by writing. Maybe that's the way I'm a participant in the sacred. Maybe that's part of my negotiation with God. Maybe my argument is with supposed "reality," with the atheist and rationalist in me. I won't give in to those things. I will go down fighting them. No matter how many of my prayers go unheard and unanswered (or so it might seem). No matter if I sit here as the wind pushes the boat around and it rains and trains and blows 65 knots for days. Maybe I'll just get louder and more insistent. Demanding, like a storm, like a hurricane for gust: Please (no -- forget please) God/Goddess/Earth take away the pain in my breast, take away the fear. Keep my body free of cancer. Heal Lauren completely. Let Lauren and Rich adopt a child and live happily ever after. I don't care if we don't deserve it any more than anyone else does. Do it anyway."
With my fierce tears I pray: Rain your mercy down on us. You damned bastard. Rain it down.