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.