Friday, December 23, 2011

On the Beauty of Irreverence

The divine, in this world, is all dressed up in mortal clothes, and longing and mortality are so profoundly intertwined as to be, finally, inseparable.
—Mary Doty

This is not the tropic paradise one imagines when thinking of Hawaii.  A gray sea scuffed white by a gale, ceaseless wind buffeting the walls of a house, gusts sweeping sheets of rain across a pasture, a sopping wet herd of sheep bleating for relief.   Wind howling with a winter voice.  Wind sending a deck chair careening across a porch.

I woke this morning in the dark to that wind.

The other morning, after reading the day’s meditation from Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening, I tried to see myself from far above, a small fleck sitting before an even smaller flame (one candle burning on a tiny altar) on an island in the vast Pacific.  It’s been windy here at the northern tip of the island since I arrived, 45 mph gusts drilling into the sea surface, sending up spouts and devils.  Buffeted by such wind and monsoon rains, one can easily feel too big for one’s britches, personally thwarted by weather, the clothes on the line, the dirt road to town, never drying.    Or one can feel tiny.  I closed my eyes and tried to picture myself from far above, as Nepo suggested, listened to trade wind, that entity that encircles these latitudes, with or without me, before, during, after.  Sometimes it’s scary to bow down to the knowledge of how tiny I really am.  How big the world, and time.  I could be wiped away with one sweep of that wind’s enormous, erasing hand.   Sometimes it’s hard to face the endurance of things like rocks.

I’ve started reading the memoir Heaven’s Coast by poet Mark Doty.  It’s about his journey through the death of his partner from AIDs in the mid-1990’s.  It’s set on Cape Cod, my other home.  When Doty was writing the book, a friend insisted “long-term survivors, you’ve got to address long-term survivors.”  Doty saw that this man wanted him to take a stance of hope in his book.  He described it as ultimately a “stance toward the world.”  This is the true nature of the world:  time and wind never stop to look down at what we’re up to.  They are indifferent.  This is the world:  our prayers get swept up and carried by wind along a belt of latitude encircling the planet.  If you lie awake at night in the dark and listen, you’ll hear the singing, praying, murmuring, beseeching, of all that desire.  This is us in the world:  desire.  Maybe that’s God, the wind, our collective voices.  That’s how we’re not alone.  In a strange way, Doty’s friend’s request for a message of hope reminds me of the pink ribbon stance toward breast cancer, and why it rings false.  To experience cancer is to be asked to dig deeper than hope.   Besides. “The world has one long-term survivor,” Doty responds, “which is the world.”

Another squall passes across this piece of land.  The lambs in the pasture ask why, the sheep answer in throaty tremuloes.  It’s light out now, 7:30 am.  I woke in the dark, before six, tip-toed into my writing room, lit a candle, listened to the wind chimes and rain swishing along sideways.   A year ago, I came to Hawaii a day past my last radiation treatment:  burned, tired, fragile.  The wind has swept that year away.  I’ve reentered the stream – I want to say after what now seems a back eddy of cancer treatment and physical recovery – but the stream is actually a river, and there are many back-eddies.  And the river is big, a Colorado.  And I’m basically a feather upon it.

And I admit I really don’t know how to meditate or pray right; I just fake it.  When I sit there and listen to the wind, and suddenly get it, how much bigger all the world is than me, when I acknowledge I’m just a speck, a feather, well, first it’s exhilarating, but then my thoughts engage, and I wonder, isn’t this what I was studying during all of those meditation retreats, reading all of those books, letting go of desire, accepting that I’m nothing, dissolving the edges of self?  But Buddhism isn’t actually my religion, I’m finding.  I’d get an F for my methods in front of the altar, my black notebook with its scribbled lists of gratitudes and prayers.   Even with that wind unceasing, I still want my specific life, and the wind gives it to me, the permission to want what I want, without hope of receiving anything.  It doesn’t make promises.  Just accepts all of my prayers into itself as it sweeps by, blind to my need and generous.  Mark Doty writes  “…there is something in the grand scale of dune and marsh and sea room for all of human longing, placed firmly in context by the larger world:  small, our flames are, though to us raging, essential.”  There is something, also, in the grad scale of this wind.

He writes that his lover Wally never stopped desiring things.  A few weeks before death, he wanted a puppy, so they got one.  Doty describes a photograph he took of Wally, in his hospital bed, reaching out to stroke the puppy.  “That is how I will always see my love:  reaching toward a world he cannot hold and loving it no less, not a stroke less.”

Even though I don’t believe the wind will grant me what I want, I ask anyway, and every morning I say thanks for all that is given, unasked for.  The oddest things.  Yesterday, changing in the car after swimming, crowded in the backseat with my two step-daughters, awkwardly transferring my breast prosthesis from my running bra to my regular bra, I reached across and slapped my step-daughter on the thigh with with the silicone mound, and then all three of them, my step-kids, Elli, Lars and Eve, passed the damn thing around, squeezed it, admired its squishiness.  We laughed crazily.  “There is something very wrong about this,” I said.  And there was, something wonderfully wrong.  And something just as wrong about the way I prayed this morning, in gratitude for the gift of our irreverence.  For that very wrongness.  And then the wind swept it all away.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On Being Stalked

Here’s how bad it’s become.  Yesterday afternoon, looking at my face in the mirror, I noticed that a fine line at the corner of the left side of my mouth traveled at a slightly different angle than the fine line at the right corner.  My rabbit mind actually whispered/wondered if I might have had a tiny stroke.  I scrutinized one side, then the other, rubbed my face, and then I burst out laughing.  Silly, silly, rabbit you.  But when I stared into my eyes, I saw there not mirth or relief but sadness and fear. 

A few months ago, I watched a Utube clip of poet and rock musician Joy Harjo performing a version of her “Fear Poem.”  It begins like this:

I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear.  I release you.  You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself.

I left my last blog post with an image:  an imaginary lynx stalking the edges of my yard, hunting snowshoe hares.  I left that post with a wish, to wear an imaginary coat of lynx, embodying something strong and fearless.  Unwittingly, I was, writing those words and imagining that beast, stalking the edge of something in myself, a truth.   It turns out to have been a kind of premonition.  Writing in this way is like dreaming.  Symbols arise out of the depths, and we don’t know what they mean.  Meaning opens not like a hand, but slowly like a buried bulb.

Hares and lynx cycle up and down here in southern Alaska, and for the last few years, hares have been on the rise.  Dirty-white in winter, grizzled in summer, large-eared, they are handsome but destructive in their gnawing hunger.  The land can’t support their numbers, and eventually they starve.  They crash and burn.  Last winter, they decimated our raspberry plants.  Who can blame them?  In the woods, they’re reduced, in winter, to eating spruce needles.

Joy Harjo sings to her fear:  You are not my blood anymore.

Fear of lynx, of owls and gyrfalcons is in the snowshoe hare’s blood, in its cells.  A shadow passes over and it bolts for cover.  A branch breaks and it freezes, white against white, heart ahammer.  

Scared like that.  It pretty much describes how I’ve been since breast cancer:  preyed upon, stalked, in the grip.  It comes and goes, my fear, and the only thing predictable is that when it subsides, I know it will be back, triggered by some shadow, a phantom ache or pain, my 48 year-old body speaking to me, a body emerged from breast cancer treatment battered and fragile and given to complaint.  Or some person's random comment.  Or a story of someone who's died.  Of course none of this is surprising.  Google “fear of breast cancer recurrence” and you’ll never get to the end of the links and testimonials.  The concept of “survivorship” is, to a large extent, concerned with managing this fear.  The new normal of the post-cancer life.  I know I am not alone.  But my fear has become unmanageable, as they say in 12 step circles.   If my psyche were a raspberry patch, it would be ripped and chewed, and the rotting snow on the ground would be trampled and yellowed and speckled with little brown droppings. 

Still life with shadow passing perpetually over a patch of snow.  Woman motionless, pressed against the ground, heart ahammer, holding her breath until the shadow passes on. 

I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.

Aside from the basics of caring for my body and soul, praying, listening to my doctors, and taking my medicine religiously, there is NOTHING I can do about cancer recurrence.   Nothing.  It will swoop down and snatch me or it won’t.  Fear won't protect me.  My counselor yesterday said surrender.  Surrender to that fact.  She said I sounded like someone being stalked.  That was it exactly.  I am being stalked by fear. 

When I was in graduate school up in Fairbanks, where nights in winter are 20 hours long, I lived in a log cabin in the woods alone and was afraid of the dark.  I’d ski or bike home at night by headlamp or moonlight, push open the thick cabin door, quickly switch on the kitchen light and look around before entering.  Still in my outdoor gear, I’d yank open the closet door, look under the bed, behind the couch, heart ahammer.  In the dark, later, I’d lie under the covers paralyzed.  Any moment, I thought, I might hear a crunch of a footstep, the squeak of a door, a scratch on a screen, and the key was to not miss that moment.  I wouldn't let myself be taken by surprise.  I lay there vigilant, stock still, terrified to breathe or move.  Ironically, this plank-like position was the opposite of the posture needed to fight off an attacker.  The body I needed was lynx-like, relaxed and supple, flexible, fleet, breathing deep, calm, balanced.  I got over my fear of the dark gradually, and it stalks me no more.  But, as my counselor pointed out, I’ve replaced that stalker with another.  It’s assumed another shape.  Cancer.  Just as that fear-of-the- dark stalker had replaced another, much older childhood fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

Death stalks us all, my counselor says.  A snowshoe hare lives in a state of constant vigilance.  A lynx is silent, stealthy, hungry also.  How do prey animals do it?  Live their lives that way?  Wouldn’t you just lay down and give in, or die young of such eternal fright?  But they do live.  Their black eyes are bright as they stand on hind legs to reach for a raspberry branch to chew.  Their black eyes are bright as they pause to groom their fur.  The crash is coming, yet they mate, nestle down, birth their naked litters, tend their offspring, release them into the dangerous, treacherous, predatory world.

I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.

To see my fear as a stalker, to acknowledge it a version of an old fear, it is to begin to deprive it of some of its power, release it, ultimately of its stalker guise.  I am still trying to understand what it means for me.  I'm still watching myself be watchful and afraid.  Right now, I just know to see fear in a new way is a game-changer.  Metaphor is a game changer.  It is that powerful.  Poets know it.  It shatters old ways of seeing the world, thus old ways of being.  Even though our minds grasp and fail to translate that shattering into language, into something we could call knowing, or understanding, it is still shattered.  

The shattering happens and we go on, tentatively feeling our way, barefoot, around the shards.  I’m just sitting here writing by the light of a candle as another day gets born.  I’m watching the forest outside my window lighten, watching darkness bleeding slowly away; it will retreat for only six hours.  The darkness in December is deep.  I’ve chosen to live in this place of extremes, extreme dark and light.  I am not afraid of this outer dark anymore, though it holds as many dangerous possibilities as it ever did.  How is that?  That darkness hasn't changed.  So I must have.  And I can change again.   This is, after all, the life I've chosen, and the life I've been given.  My life in a place of wild darkness, forests stalked by predators.  It is full of pain, and peril, and promise.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won't take you in my hands.
You can't live in my eye, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

I release you, Joy Harjo sings.  But my song is different.  My song arrives from far away, and I can barely make out the words.  It arrives in snippets, in fragments, among bird calls and shadows.  It will take a long time to understand, and to listen, and to change.  I transform you, it think says.   Fear, I give you another name.

Please watch this clip of Joy Harjo reciting her poem.  I promise, you won’t regret it:

(The Joy Harjo poem quoted here is from her poetry collection The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gardening in December

It's about as gray as it get can in the daytime up here today, a storm anchored down on the Kenai Peninsula, dropping rain on top of the snow.  And it's less than three weeks from the shortest day of the year.  For the last month, I've been trying not to look at the four packages of tulip and crocus bulbs on the bench seat in my entry way, because they've begun to sprout little white nubs, and they remind me of my neglectful ways, buying them way back in September, handing them out to my students for a writing assignment, then abandoning them behind the dog food bag.  The reproach on their faces is just too much.  But today, in the gloom of this early December afternoon, I took a little clam shovel and tapped the frozen earth along the basement as though searching for a bearing wall, and finally found a place, under a window, where the ground was still soft.  I dug in, sprinkled on bone meal, and arranged the bulbs close together, in a cluster, then buried them, top-dressed with decaying plant matter.  And while I was out there, I repaired the netting fence around the raspberries to keep the snowshoe hares out, on my knees in the snow, my fingers aching from the 40-degree cold.  And then I carried a few sad dead plants down to the greenhouse.  In the trees, a sound like bells startled me, calls more like southern swamp songs than like hearty Alaskan winter caws, buzzes or cackles.  A flock of tall lean gabardine birds chimed in the alders.  I think they were grosbeaks.

Now I'm back in the house after stoking up the woodstove, listening to the logs catch, crackle and snap, listening to the metal tick, and in the background, to the dripping of melting snow off the roof.  Thinking about those bulbs I stuck into the ground.  The thing about bulbs is they have this chestnut-colored sheath of skin, a thin, papery protection.  That's all.  Me, I've got this sturdy warm house, thick insulated walls, the heat radiating from the woodstove.  Solitude is my sheath of protective skin.  And when I go out among people, I wear various furs (metaphorical ones, that is).

I'm here alone at home today (Craig already left for the yearly pilgrimage to Hawaii, not for him this dark time) after a sociable evening and morning.  Last night, I wandered over to my favorite gallery for a first Friday opening:  a series of portraits by a beloved local painter.  The portraits were of various Homer artists of all stripes, musicians, painters, potters, sculptors.  It was one of those cozy small-town winter gatherings; this town grows more intimate in winter; people band together.  Homer's built at the end of a peninsula, the end of the road, people call it, and under this cover of long nights, at times (like now, the rain pelting the windows of the house), it does feel like we've come unmoored and are adrift in the North Pacific, cut off from the rest of the world.  So people come together more.  There are potlucks, Scrabble games, movies.

But I've found lately that I feel socially retarded in public these days.  My skin feels excessively thin.  Voices bang and clang around me, my nerves jangle.  As I circled the gallery, moving form portrait to portrait, I bumped into a woman I know, S.  I hadn't seen her in a few weeks, and she asked how I was feeling in that sincere, concerned tone I've grown so familiar with these last several months.  It sets my nerves to prickling and kindles a hot flare of rage.  But S, she is a sincere person.  S is made of warm light, let me tell you, about as compassionate and kind a person as you'd want to know.  So why my sudden donning of porcupine skin?  My inner self scrunched in and flared my tail at her.  This is what I said.  I said I felt great.  But then I said, "I have to ask, because another person in town thought I had metastatic cancer, and asked me about my prognosis, and you seemed so concerned when you asked me how I was, that I wanted to make sure that you knew that wasn't the case."  Poor S.  There we were in this crowded, brightly lit, loud, public space, me babbling on in this weird way out of nowhere, her just asking "how are you feeling?" and I think I scared her, because she said she hadn't heard anything like that, and then she was gone.

When people ask me how I feel, how I'm doing, I just get crazy sometimes.  The question frightens me, triggers this irrational response.  It feels as though a person is speaking to me from across a divide, a turnstile, and I don't have a token to get to the other side of that question, to where they stand, drink in hand, in the land of women who've never had cancer.  To the place where "How are you doing?" is an utterly mundane, benign question.  But there, on my side of the turnstile, my inner porcupine wanted to say:  Don't look at me that way.  I don't have terminal cancer, I'm okay, I'm cancer-free, I'm well, please don't reflect that fear and concern at me because it scares me, it makes me wonder if there's something you know that I don't.  And of course it's unfair on my part.  The intention behind the question, in every case, is nothing but loving.

So it was time to leave, flee the crowd, as I so often do these days.  But first two women friends and I made a plan, to meet at my house after the opening, to have dinner and a sleep-over.  With these friends I can shed my porcupine skin, my public skin.  After dinner, we put pillows down in front of the woodstove, lit candle lanterns, and laid bananagram tiles on the warm floor.  I heated a pot of nettle tea on the stove top, and we ate walnuts and dried blueberries.  Then we went to sleep.  In the morning I heard my friend Asia walking around in the dark, so I called her name and she came in and asked if she could get under the covers with me.  Her partner's away, too, in graduate school.  So we lay there side-by-side for over an hour as the dark got just a wee bit less dark and we talked.  First she told me about the dream she'd had.  Then I told her of my difficulty in public settings like the gallery opening, as though I'm being bombarded with arrows.  Asia said that in deep winter, in a venue like that, celebrating the work of a fellow artist, we come together to mirror the light in one another.  That's what the artist's portrait's had done.  Asia suggested I prepare myself for such encounters with people, put on more clothes, put on an outfit, another skin, and answer such questions purely from the moment:  "I'm feeling great tonight.  It's great to see you.  How are you doing?"  Then I could be a mirror to someone's caring soul, their inner light.  Or, if necessary, to another's probing soul, their fear.  Instead I see only a projection of my own greatest fear in another's eyes.  And fear is what I mirror.

It's been over a year now since cancer treatment ended, and I'm still getting to know the shape of this bulb, this body, this somewhat shell-shocked soul under its papery skin.  I'm still trying on different skins, deciding which is mine.  Last weekend, another friend helped me purge my closet, casting off the clothes that no longer fit me, finally letting go of the last "cancer clothes."  Those were once favorites I wore after surgery, during chemo treatment, but memories clung to them like a scent.  They'd served me well, but it was time to let them go.  Perhaps for awhile, the porcupine skin served me well too.  Perhaps I'll need it again someday.  But wouldn't something soft and supple, holding the spirit of an animal that's balanced, brave and centered -- the skin of a lynx, perhaps -- be nicer?

Perhaps right now, out in the yard, in another kind of December gardening, a lynx creeps along the forest edge, hunting for the snowshoe hares that, in their fearful hunger, would mow down my raspberry patch.  Perhaps tomorrow I'll find a tuft of lynx hair caught on an alder branch.  And with it, I'll start to sew my new winter coat.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cancer Winter: One Year Later

This morning, an article in the NY Times about medical students writing poetry.  Among student poems printed in the paper was this one by poet Marilyn Hacker:

Cancer Winter
by Marilyn Hacker
No body stops dreaming it’s twenty-five,
or twelve, or ten, when what is possible’s
a long road poplars curtain against loss, able
to swim the river, hike the culvert, drive
through the open portal, find the gold hive
dripping with liquid sweetness. Risible
fantasy, if, all the while, invisible
entropies block the roads, so you arrive
outside a ruin, where trees bald with blight
wane by a river drained to sluggish mud.
The setting sun looks terribly like blood.
The hovering swarm has nothing to forgive.
Your voice petitions the indifferent night:
“I don’t know how to die yet. Let me live.

Hell, I don’t know how to live yet.  Emailing with a friend this morning, we talked about relationships, repairing them, taking down the walls we build between us brick by brick, and how intractable habits are.  How hard it is to change.  It’s one of the aspects of living I’m still practicing.  You live whether you know how to do it or not.  You get thrown into the pond not knowing how to swim.  You get dumped into the desert not knowing anything about the desert’s ways, and you have to figure them out as you go along.  And all the dusty others wandering around you have that same confused look on their faces, but they try to help, teach you a little of what they’ve learned about the desert, which isn’t much, because the desert is vast and unknowable.  Even that redpoll flock yesterday, what do I know about them?  I guess it’s exactly the same way with cancer.  I remember describing the dumped-off-a-train feeling after my diagnosis.  Thrown off without map or compass, water bottle or sun block.  Oh you figure out how to do it, get into a pattern and it feels like you’re set.  But then you stumble down a swale into some place you’ve never been before, and you realize the desert is an ecosystem of enormous complexity.  There’s a new species of scorpion or rattlesnake in the swale.  Are you supposed to run or hold your ground?

There’s a quote on my refrigerator by the poet Rilke, and it goes like this:  “As it happens, the wall between us is very thin.  Why couldn’t a cry from one of us break it down?  It would crumble easily.  It would barely make a sound.”  But thinking about it today, I realize that the real wall is the one we build around our own hearts.  Without the wall, how could we survive in a land of scorpions and thorns?  Come on, you can’t walk naked through the desert and survive.  You can’t go through life like Jesus in the painting where he’s wearing his heart, bleeding and crowned with a braid of thorns, on the outside of his body.  The desert is harsh.  After years, the walls get pretty damn thick.  But behind the wall we’re very fragile creatures.

I realized only this afternoon the significance of this day.  It’s December 1.  A year ago on this day, I walked out of Cape Cod Hospital with a ridiculous certificate of completion in my hand.  I’d been zapped by radiation for the last time.  It was a blustery, rainy, cold early winter day on the Cape, very gray, the sky spitting rain all over the place.  No desert, but a pretty forbidding landscape just the same.  That day, I said goodbye to my Cape Cod family, my sister, her husband, their three kids.  Craig and I boarded a bus in Hyannis for the airport to begin the process of reentry.  Reentry into my own life, post cancer.  Craig and I flew to Hawaii to begin the long process of recovery.  But getting on that bus was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.   It was, come to think of it, being flung off the train yet again into a new place.  My sister and I couldn’t let go of each other.  There was no wall at all between us.  It had collapsed months before.  That’s the price of walking naked through the desert together.  How much it hurts to pull away.  As the bus backed away from that god-forsaken terminal, I watched her standing there in the rain.  Nothing could be more forlorn than that image I carry tucked in my heart like a black-and-white photograph.  I relive that moment right now, in all of its terrible pain and promise.

So it’s another new year’s day, as I told a friend who just finished a treatment program of her own.  The flocks of redpolls, the changing sky, enact an endless renewal.  It hurts so much to be reborn this way.  This is my poem, my petition to indifferent birds.  Show me how to live in this place with only just enough protection to survive.