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!
Has written a thousand promises
All over your heart
Life, life, life,
Is far too sacred to
(That is from The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky).