Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Leaving the Burning House

The other day, driving home from work, my mind troubled, I looked up and saw a flock of redpolls twisting scattershot across a field, shape-shifting over the road.  I thought, there is another world, apart from all that’s human: what a relief.  Car after car passed on the white-topped asphalt, carrying imperatives and purposes, and that redpoll flock disappeared over a rise.  It shifted my perspective by lifting me up out of myself.  My world can feel so small, wrapped tight around my concerns.

My friend reminded me today of the serenity prayer.  “Turn it over,” she said, meaning those things I can’t control, the paths my loved follow with their lives, my fate, my future health.   I thought of pages turning over in a book.  I thought of a bird flock, the way it moves, turning inside out like a wind-blown sheet.

I imagine people go to church to be reminded of something bigger than themselves.  Others carry divinity within, maybe just close their eyes and breathe to remember:  this world is not about my troubles.  It’s always been the wild earth for me.  I guess it’s my religion.  A bird flock catches my eye and it’s a glimpse of some kind of earthly heaven.  What poet Adrienne Rich called “a threadbare beauty.”  Ordinary birds above an ordinary snow-covered field.  Vincent van Gogh fired a gun to incite crows to rise above a wheat field.  Maybe he did it not just for his painting.  Maybe he did it to startle up out of himself.  Perhaps it was a moment of liberation.  Tonight, at dusk, I took the dogs for a walk through the woods behind my house.  The sky was dusty blue. A sliver moon shone bright and high above the birches.  And it was only 4:30 pm.  We’re in the dark time, and I love it.  Our cold spell broke and it was a few degrees above freezing.  I love to walk at dusk when the dogs disappear in shadows, when branches are sharply outlined against an evening sky.  The woods smell good again, the snow heavy and wet, the air damp against my face, not biting sharp as it’s been these last several weeks.  I looked into the net of branches for the shape of an owl.  There’s been a pair calling early in the mornings.  The dogs were on the trail of something at the edge of a swale, and I sat on a fallen birch tree waiting for them, feeling grateful.

When I went to my bookshelf just now, I pulled out The Ink Dark Moon, poems of the ancient court of Japan, and opened to one by Izumi Shikibu.

Should I leave this burning house
of ceaseless thought
and taste the pure rain’s
single truth
falling upon my skin?

Yes I should.  There’s a single truth to a flock of redpolls.  Turn it over, and I find a set of coyote tracks in the snow.  Turn it over, and an owl calls.  So why is it so damned hard to leave the burning house?  When truth waits for me in the woods?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Swimming for a Rescue Ship

Finally the temperature rose above 20 in Homer.  A storm gathers force out in the Gulf, approaching the coast.  It might even rain this week, though we hope not; it will ruin the snow pack.  We enter a pattern the weather forecaster calls “lively.”  Last week, my nature essay students wrote about the weather.  Naturally, they wrote about incessant change.  Change, if you’re a Buddhist, is practically a religion.  Perhaps that’s why weather, to my ear, rhymes with reverence.  These big winter lows roll over us, one by one, and we’re no more than twigs to that indifferent god.  Does weather also rhyme with health?  Our bodies, who art in perpetual states of weather.  Our bodies, weathered habitations, ruined chapels, slumping huts.

I’m thinking today about a friend who feels like nothing.  At least in a low moment felt that way.  Cancer made me feel that way.  Just a feather some storm could blow away, and who would be the wiser, after years and years?  The living live on.  Day by day growing more feathery.   What’s a feather made up of?  A shaft.  A vane.  A rachis.  Afterfeathers and downy barbs.  And a whole lot of air and translucence.   

Getting treated for cancer far from home was a humbling experience.   Returning home was like stepping onto an escalator.  It hadn’t stopped escalating while I was gone, it doesn’t stop escalating if I’m scared or tired or obsessed or paralyzed.   I take my place among the escalating living, my little life one of many, and no two the same.  “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” poet Mary Oliver asks.  Oh she asks me almost every day, her poem “The Summer Day” replaying on the whisper-ma-phone (remember the Lorax?) in my brain.  What does it all mean?  Cancer is a macro lens.  So is any way life falls apart.  Why are we here on earth anyway?  Every day I pray for an answer.  Receive only the first light in the forest, the temperature of the air, the forecast, updated every six hours. 

In that poem, Mary Oliver also admits “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.”  I don’t either.  Still, each morning for a month now I climb a ladder into my meditation loft, light two candles and a scrap of incense, close my eyes and pray.  For what, for whom?  For the little things, for the feathers I know who are hurting in some way, and so many people I love are hurting.  Does my prayer matter, does it change a thing out there, an outcome, save a world, does it change the direction of the wind?  Does it cause a butterfly on Cape Cod to flap its wings?  But I find, at the end of each day, that the humblest prayers are answered.  They are the ones for myself, for guidance, for balance, for focus.  I pray to be a better friend or listener to this or that person in my life, to let go of ego when I respond to a student’s work.  Whatever is before me that day.  No more grandiose prayers:  to get a book published, to get a grant, or death to cancer.  I don’t pray anymore for what’s out of my hands.  I don’t pray for a particular kind of weather.  Should I?  I stick to the prayers I love best, the prayers that set my intention for my little day.  My little life.  My one feather.  “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Oliver asks.  Is it enough to simply love the life we’re given?  Love it fiercely, every blessed cup of coffee, every square of chocolate, every bowl of soup, every falling flake or leaf?  “We’ll all be gone tomorrow,” my friend David sings.  That’s what binds us together.

I had a terrible bout of fear of cancer last weekend, and in my meditation loft, I prayed for relief, and then I voiced the fear to my friend M, visiting for Thanksgiving.   Just to voice it was relief.  Just to have it heard.  But what amazed both of us was how my prayer was answered all through that day and the next.  First, a random encounter with another breast cancer survivor at a gallery.  She was twelve years out, but still understood fear.  Then, an encounter with a woman treated for colorectal cancer last year.  She sometimes emailed me from the infusion center, an IV pumping chemo into her vein.  In a loud voice, in the health club locker room, she said,  “Here we are, getting our bodies back.”  And I felt a little proud when others turned to look.  Later, in a quiet voice, she confided her anxiety and insomnia. 
I woke the other morning from a dream that I’d thrown myself into the cold Pacific at night, as kind of trial run, and was swimming toward a rescue ship, a giant tender.  It seemed to be Resurrection Bay, not far from Seward.  I know.  There is no trial run.  Maybe we’ve all been thrown into this same cold, deep water, in the middle of the night.  Maybe we’re all swimming blindly toward a rescue ship we heard about and hope exists.  Maybe we’re all swimming toward some kind of idea, of resurrection.  In the dream, when I was pulled aboard my rescue ship, the deck was bright under sodium vapor lights.  My rescuers were just a bunch of ordinary guys in flannel shirts and Carhartts.  They were nobodies, doing nothing out of the ordinary.  Just doing their job.  Just doing what the living do, best as they can.  They saved my life.     

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Seeds Under Snow

November 16

This is not the usual month to think about seeds in Alaska.  But whether I think about them or not, seeds are everywhere.  Seeds are doing what seeds do best:  hunkering and waiting.  Self-contained, encased in protective shells, seeds lie under four inches of snow in the woods around my house.  Seeds nestle down among dead alder leaves.  Seeds hide under of collapsed, brown fern fronds.  Pushki seeds cling, maybe, to the hock-hairs of a footloose moose.  Seeds are imbedded in the nuggets of a ravenous moose that doesn’t chew his food.

In my entryway, sad to say, are bags of bulbs I bought in September.  “Too busy” to plant them, my nose to the computer screen, my eyes seeing nothing but the deadline date for my book draft, I kept putting off planting those bulbs.  One day I even got a shovel.  One day I even cleared collapsed perennials off a patch of earth in the rock garden.  But then, as it does here in late October, the ground froze hard overnight.  I never got around to planting the bulbs, and some are starting to sprout.  I’m going to have to figure this out, I know.  They need their dark, hunkering time in frozen earth to think, to ponder what they want to be when they grow up:  Tulip?  Crocus?  Daffodil?  I know how they feel.

Now that the first draft of my book is in the editor’s hands, I feel this urgency to sprout the seed of the next writing endeavor.  Though working toward a book deadline while recovering from cancer treatment has been a bit stressful, I’ve also loved it, to meet each day with such clarity of focus, brewing my coffee, lighting a candle, settling in for work.  It was so clear to me after my diagnosis what my focus should be, a voice in my head saying “finish the whale book,” and for the last year, it’s been the sun I’ve grown toward every morning. 

The funny thing about life after breast cancer is there is no permanently altered state of mental clarity, at least not for me, no bucket list, no check marks beside numbered goals.  It’s just life again, the next goal lost in a fogbank up ahead.  One seed sprouting, one plant arising, flowering, dying back.  And then another seed.  It’s just gardening.  It’s just life.

Which reminds me of an encounter I had last week.  I’d just walked dreamily out of my morning yoga class.  In shivasana, corpse pose, at the end of class, this thought had popped into my head:  “I really think people who see me around town now don’t think “breast cancer” first off.  I really think it’s changed.  I’m just me again.”  It was a very liberating feeling, as though I’d just poked my green tip from a crack in a seed and was feeling the sun for the first time.  But boy does "the universe" or whatever just love assertions like that!  Putting on my coat, I spotted an acquaintance; I’ll call her D.  She smiled, so I walked over.

“I read your poem at the museum,” she said.  “I really liked it.”  My poem is part of an exhibit of art and poetry at the local museum called “Who Has Lived Here?”  “I can really understand how you feel, what you meant in the poem.  There’s been cancer in my family, too” she said.  “And they want to live each day to the fullest, appreciate each day . . .” I’m not remembering her exact words after that because my brain froze.  Shit.  Branded by Cancer.  At the same time my brain froze, my heart clenched into a tight fist, and I had to swallow back anger.  Anger at the kind words of an acquaintance who’d read into my poem something clearly present, though at the time of its writing, not intended.  I pushed the snarl back and said,

“Actually, I wrote that poem years ago, when I first moved to Homer.  It had nothing to do with cancer.”

“Really?” she said.

And it was true, in a way.  It had nothing to do with cancer, specifically.  Here is the ending of the poem (I call it my "chicken poem").  It's about collecting eggs from my hens.   (I think I actually posted the whole poem on this blog once):

Walking back the dog waited for me,
the egg was warm in my pocket.

My house was there.  And I was there,
and the egg for my family.  Death was

nowhere foraging in the cottonwood trees. 
Now I kneel in front of the stove

raking the ashes for a few live coals
to start the evening fire.  I just walked

to the chicken coop and back.
That was all.  I placed an egg in the tray

that marks a string of days laid out like that.
A life lived out, egg by egg.  It was pretty good.
You can see why she thought the poem had been recently composed.  But what I wanted to say to her was, “Actually, no, I’m not living each day to the fullest!  I’m exactly like you, like everyone else.  I try, but still I waste lots of precious time reading New York Times articles online, watching Breaking Bad episodes (about a guy who gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and turns his life around – by becoming a truly BAD person), worrying, shopping, procrastinating, lying on the couch.”  Oh it was a bad seed that sprouted from my heart.   Thank goodness I didn’t vent at this well-meaning, lovely person.  Because it's true a cancer diagnosis impacts everyone around us; it asks all of us to consider how we're spending our "one precious life" (in Mary Oliver's words).  But maybe I just didn't want to be the "Life is Precious" poster child for that day.

Which brings me back to seeds.  My counselor asked me a couple weeks ago, in that casual, offhand but penetrating way she has, “So how’s your daily spiritual practice?”

“Um,” I said.  “I go to yoga three times a week …”  (More evidence that I am less than enlightened post-cancer).

So since my talk with her, I’ve climbed up into my loft each morning to light candles and incense and set my intention for the day and to pray, send good energy out to people in my life who might need it.  Last week, after I sent my first draft off to my editor, I picked an “Osho Zen” Tarot card after meditating on my desire for direction, for a sense of purpose now that the book is in the polishing stages.  What next?  I guess I don’t have a Bucket List.  I just have a bucket.  So I reached in a grabbed a card out of that imaginary bucket.

But before I tell you what the card said, I have to relate that just a few minutes ago, looking for inspiration for this blog post, I grabbed a book of poetry by Hafiz off my shelf, opened it at random, and found a poem called “God’s Bucket.”

If this world
Was not held in God’s bucket

How could an ocean stand upside down
On its head and never lose a drop?

If your life was not contained in God’s cup

How could you be so brave and laugh,
Dance in the face of death?

There is a private chamber in the soul
That knows a great secret

Of which no tongue can speak.

The card I drew was called “Courage.”  The image on the card was of a green sprout emerging from a crack in cold, gray stone, growing toward a warm sun.  The seed is that "great secret," in the "private chamber in the soul." 

But I know that the next sprouting is still to come.  For now, it's winter, time to nurture the seed, whatever’s contained within:  Tulip?  Crocus?  Daffodil?

Post or pre-cancer, or never-to-be-cancer, aren’t we all the same?  Aren't we all dancing with death?  Isn’t it just seed after seed after seed?  I’m just one of you, right?  And by the way, last Friday, when the exhibit at the museum opened, the poets read their poems, including me.  Reciting, I looked up at the audience, and there she was, D.  Our eyes met briefly.  And I saw an amazing, transported, glowing, sprouting look on her face.

Here’s the end of the Hafiz poem:

Your existence my dear, O love my dear,

Has been sealed and marked

“Too sacred,” “too sacred,” by the Beloved –
To ever end!

Indeed God
Has written a thousand promises
All over your heart

That say,
Life, life, life,
Is far too sacred to
Ever end.

(That is from The Gift:  Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky).