Thursday, December 27, 2012

To Wield My Pen, and My Shovel

If healing is attempting to achieve (or reestablish) balance, then a writer's life is an ideal proving ground.  Because a fanatical writer would adopt a hunched posture, a bleary set of eyes, atrophied leg muscles, a deathly pallor, diminished social skills, a flat derriere, never leaving her desk.  The work of writing happens sitting down.  But the raw material of writing comes from bodily contact with the world.  I once read a wonderful biography of Georgia O'Keefe by Roxanne Robinson.  A journal entry or letter excerpt of O'Keefe's when she was young and just committing herself to her art impacted me greatly.  She wrote that at a certain point, she asked herself, with every choice she made (whether to go to a party or outing or engage in an activity) whether it would enhance or detract from her art.  If it detracted, she'd refuse it.  As a grad student, I tried that on for awhile.  But I realized quickly that a whole human being is more than an artist (or scientist, or farm laborer, or activist, or whatever our passion or vocation).  I still find the idea of it romantic.  In the abstract, it would be nice to be one of those single-minded artists believing so much in the importance of their work (and with a wife to deflect all input from the world so the great works can get written), that they live by O'Keefe's principles.  (We should build monuments to those (mostly) women, without whom, so much literature and artwork would never have been born).  But since breast cancer, my writing, healing and spiritual impulses have woven themselves more tightly together; I can't separate them.  Hence the prayer poems I've been writing, and hence this blog, and meditation, and walking, and observing the world, all of it feeding into the words that appear on a page or in a blog post.    

My love, Craig, accuses me of being an extremist and I admit he's right.  My current anti-cancer diet is evidence: no meat, no dairy, no sugar, no alcohol, no wheat.  But the holidays, and a social life in general, challenges such rigidities.  So when Don and Douglas invite us to dinner and make meatloaf, I eat it.  And when the Winters invite us to a traditional Swedish Christmas Eve dinner, I load my plate with sauerkraut, homemade potato and meat sausages, Swedish meatballs, and after, chocolate cake.  I share a macadamia nut martini with Craig, or a cosmo with my friend Ralph, who has Hep-C and also shouldn't drink.  I don't tell friends who invite me for dinner of my private cancer phobias around food.  My oncologist, Dr. S., once looked at me with dismay, I dare say sorrow, and asked, "So that means you don't treat yourself to an ice cream cone?"  I'm lucky, because I love healthy food, vegetables, fruit, salmon, rice, tofu, miso, brick-like bread, gritty crackers.  But I'm less obsessed about reading every study that suggests this or that food is good or bad in terms of cancer recurrence.  So this morning's poem reflects the balancing act, the life of the mind at play with the life of the body.  As I write these words, my love clears the ground for a flower garden outside my window with that big orange tractor that appears in the poem.  I have the opposite of Hemingway's dutiful wife: my man calls me to come outside and plant beets.  For his distracting and healing influence, I am grateful. (I am also grateful to poet Mary Ruefle's essay "Madness Rack and Honey" which also provided inspiration for this poem).

12.27.2012 Prayer

Distracted by laundry on the line, the physics of wind, which defines
whether a t-shirt wraps itself into a cocoon or flaps like an injured
bird or dangles. By him watering the eggplants. Distracted by his orange
tractor parked outside my window. By remembrance of snows past.
By a hand of bananas, half-green on the lanai. Distracted by the door
opening and him asking (not caring) where to plant fennel, where
to move the hotly inedible pepper tree. This is a prayer

for the war(p) between

a world lived on the page, unseen, in the mind, and another, of trade wind,
o-bar, pick-ax, bleach. And memory, singing in the choir loft, Our Lady
of Mr. Carmel, Lucille at the organ, the opening mouths and chords to Let
there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me constructing a poem of leaves
and debris, leaving the draft to cool, to load the dehydrator with bananas
and holes in the ground with cassava and pigeon pea. To wield my shovel.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Long Walk Through Rugged Terrain

For Christmas, my love made a booklet of the last year’s blog posts, and presented it to me.  The last entry in the booklet showed me in a hoarfrost meadow in Alaska, marking the two-year anniversary of my final radiation treatment.  So now I’m on the other side of those two years, and the other side of my winter transition to Hawaii, out of the hoarfrost and into the salt spray of a wild, windy, rocky coast.  And we are on the other side of the Mayan calendar’s end, the Solstice, winter holidays, preparing for the new year.  What does it mean?  A page in my calendar is titled “unexpected blessings,” and another speaks of “changes we may anticipate and those which may take us by surprise.”   

December this year was a month of shattering and sorrow on this earth, of storms and violence and loss.  Right now blizzards are bearing down on humans and animals and birds in the Midwest, pushing eastward.  Trees are crashing down.  Some people’s time on earth, ends abruptly, unexpectedly.  It’s been a month, too, of prayers and the painful, brutal first steps toward healing which always come, the days after the funeral, which don’t feel anything like relief.  Looking back at the last two years, I see that healing is like that.  It sounds nice, soft on the tongue, but in reality it’s lonely and harsh.  A healed tree displays its old wound.  It’s gnarled.  We gnarl our way out of grief, too.  

I talked to my cousin today.  In the last few years, she’s lost her only sibling, a brother, of a sudden heart attack, and her mother, of pancreatic cancer; she died in October. My cousin, a social worker, has taken care of others her whole adult life.  She never had kids, but helped raise her brother’s kids, who lived in the same house as she and her mother. She says she feels the love of her extended family.  But there is a process only she can go through and know, the process of coming to terms with being, as an old gospel song says, an “orphan girl” on this earth. There is no comfort anyone can offer for that.  The healing path is private, a long walk through rugged terrain, picking up along the way truths, like stones, which fill your backpack.  You emerge sun-and-wind-burnt, sinewy, weathered, stronger surely for all you’ve carried, maybe more self-contained.

Since December, I’ve begun a new daily writing practice, a series of prayer-poems.  In Alaska, in mid-winter, sunrise takes at least two hours.  The sun doesn’t crest the mountains across Kachemak Bay until after 10 am.  It’s the ideal time to write.  At first, I thought of those poems as separate from this blog, but today, I’m reminded to question holding back.  This is where I am now, and these prayer poems have something do with healing.  And they are an exploration of the thing we call “praying,” what it means to me.  And they represent the stones I gather in my backpack.  So I will begin to post them here.  The older I get, the more so many things seems beyond my control.  But I don’t wish to throw up my hands in despair, or become passive or indifferent.  Sometimes, the only gesture left to is prayer.  And to me, the poems that matter in my life are forms of prayer.  It’s what I do with my worries now.  And writing, poetry or prose, for me is the way I know to answer the question I started this post with:  “What does it mean?”

This is the first in the series:

11.28.2012 Prayer

Morning stacks up in parallels – inlet,
a flat-topped mountain, cloud-strips,

a black
of sand.  Light arrives in bands
at 9, hues like faint scent marks.  But this is still the hour

before I want there to be, before any prayer,
any please, gods:  just a mountain dusted in pale

blue talcum (as in light as powder).  That’s all.
That’s enough.          

Before any if, the wishful, before the arrival

of need or dread:  the letter, the word, even you,
away now
these many weeks (due on the noon plane),

and I, in solitude, this hour just prior,
(day as yet without
prognosis, anniversary of no one),

watch hues elide into blue
of a shadow I remember

pooled at the base of a tree
in deep winter, north of here,

memory I peel

off moonlit boreal snow and carefully
glue to this incipient
sky, line by line.

Lay it down like a wing-track.
Until a soul can’t hold 

any longer, and cracks, crying its tiny please,

between as-yet black branches
(the way bird song bursts, a prayer) don’t let anything
begin or be just yet.  Please day,
(as-yet black)

don’t arrive for me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Anniversary: After Two Healing Years, Two Kinds of Joy

On December 1, the two-year anniversary of my last radiation zap, I waited for my love to get off the plane in Homer.  Through the door walked Rosanna, who’d flown in from Anchorage, where she goes every week for her radiation treatments. The elation I felt for her being almost done (one week to go), at her telling me that she is suffering no ill effects, was intense, a body rush.  We hugged each other hard and rocked back and forth.  Sympathetic joy, it’s called.  When you experience another’s joy as your own.  

There is another kind of joy, one you get to experience alone.  That afternoon, after dropping Craig off at his office, I drove with my dog Gris-Gris to Beluga Lake for my first skate-ski of the winter.  There isn’t enough snow on the ground yet for skiing anywhere else.  Skiing’s fine by me, but in this case, skis were just a means to get to the other end of the lake faster.  It’s about a mile across the ice to a wild marshland inaccessible at any other time of year.  Weeks of cold dry weather have sublimated the snow covering the grasses, transforming it into a quilt of hoar frost.  Mounds of bowed-down grass are thick with a velour of crystals, some an inch or two long.  I left my skis at the end of the lake and Gris-Gris and I followed narrow ice channels through the marsh.  I was hoping to see the white owl again, the one that flew up from the ice last weekend, or one of the great gray owls my friends saw last winter, or a lynx or coyote out hunting the snowshoe hares whose tracks are everywhere on the ice.  I angled toward the nearby trees, found myself surrounded not by creatures, but by crystals. I was swishing knee deep in ice-bearded grass, millions and millions of miniature crystal ferns glinting in the low sunlight of midwinter.  I just wanted to lie down in it.  So I did, eating handfuls of hoarfrost off the collapsed grass around my face. It is fragile, collapses at the touch of a tongue, at a breath.  I ate it, and I let it cool my aching lower back, injured from last weekend’s ice-skating and too much sitting on a hard kitchen chair and working at the computer.  I looked at the sparkles of the grasses’ second skin.  I lay in a cradle/grave of hoar frost.  I stared up at the blue, blue sky. I swear I could see the sky streaming by in a river of molecules.  Let this earth become a heaven, writes Cyrus Cassells, “Down from the Houses of Magic.”  Sometimes you find that it is, that prayer is answered.  Heaven on earth, a house of magic, in the midst of everything chaotic, frightening, uncertain.  I don’t know if I can call it joy.  It is peace.  It is enough.  All concepts of forgiveness, guilt or fear vanish, dying into life in a meadow of hoar frost.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

In the dream, my windows were open.  It was fall. 

In fall, songbirds quiet since July sing again, before they fly south.  It's a strange phenomenon.  Midsummer, the forest falls silent.  The bustle of territory-defending and nest-building and mate-luring-and-attending is done.  Birds are too busy raising their young to sing.  But in fall, just as in April, I hear their tentative, raspy songs again, as though their voices are hoarse from disuse.

In my dream, their voices were not hoarse.  Their songs were flute-like, rippling, tumbling, swirling through the dying leaves.  Their songs moved like whirling winds.  In my dream I tore out the door, desperate to hear this music I'd missed, this music so ephemeral, crazed to be surrounded by it before it was too late.  I ran down a long green lawn, my arms in the the air, and the birds were already leaving, winging south above me, one after another, swift bodies arrowing away, and I cried up to them, waving, "goodbye, goodbye," not caring if anyone saw me.  People across the street stood on their porch watching, but I didn't care.  My heart was busting out of me, all that mattered was reaching up toward those birds, loving them.  And then I saw the bear.  In my dream, the brown bear was there suddenly on the lawn, and she was close, coming right for me, and just as suddenly there was my car in between us in the middle of the lawn, and I dove over its roof, to get to the driver's side door, the door closest to the bear.  I had to get into that car, but I knew I wouldn't make it.  In all my dreams, I can't outrun whatever it is that is chasing me.  My arms and legs fill with sand, and I can't make them work anymore.  But I got the car door open, tumbled into the driver's seat, but before I could shut the door the brown bear was upon me, my arm in her mouth, her teeth clamped on my flesh, pressing.  And that's when I woke up.

It struck me that this is exactly the conundrum of the person who's had breast cancer.  How to live with the bear lurking always behind the hedge?  The bear can appear at any moment.  Do you run headlong toward life, toward beauty, toward all that you love anyway?  Is it worth the risk?  Is it worth the loss?  Or do you live your life listening to the bird song from the safety of your house, hearing it only through the open window?  Do you follow your madly beating heart?  Do you chase the alive creatures?  Or let the fear of dying paralyze you?  Or maybe there is yet another interpretation.  Could be it's the brown bear and not the birds you are running headlong and recklessly toward?

My friend Erin, who writes a blog called "Being Poetry," posted this poem this morning, by Jack Gilbert.  I place it side-by-side with my dream, on that pile of salvaged things I wrote of yesterday (goshawk, pillar, grosbeak), the things I've saved from the ruined landscape of my day, that place where creation begins out of destruction.  If this life is one big dream.  Then I say, hello departing songbirds.  Hello pounding heart.  Hello poetry.  Hello goshawk.  Hello brown bear with my arm in your mouth.  Teach me how to live here.  Yes, my eyes are open.

A Brief for the Defense
by Jack Gilbert 
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

From Refusing Heaven (Knopf, 2005)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Shattered Light

There are so many ways to be shattered in life.  Breast cancer is only one.  A hurricane is another.  Having a neighbor's distraught teenager in crisis take up residence in your house and life for a weekend is yet another.  It's just a matter of scale.  Watching yourself fall into the same hole again is a shattering.  Thin ice and you break through and all day you try to clamber out, find solid ground.  There are so many ways to be in over your head.  Yesterday, the sky reflected this shattering.  It was a backdrop and a mirror, and it shattered and shattered and reformed and morphed all day long.  At one point, pillars of light formed over one part of Kachemak Bay, while cloud shapes slid across another part, like fat drops of water elongating on a piece of glass, pushing against surface tension.  And to the west, a gold blast of light throbbed against the horizon.  It was like looking at light in ruins, light blasted apart.  The pillars held up nothing.  The cloud shapes refused to moor themselves.  The gold blast hurt the eyes.  A fogbank left the upper parts of mountains disembodied, detached from earth. None of it made sense, held together, told a sensible story.

This morning I woke up and couldn't help but think of my own life as that kind of ruins.  Stay with me here.  I don't mean to sound dramatic or negative.  Because that shattered sky was the kind of beautiful that confounds.  It was light like I'd never seen it before.  The sky put into form something never before revealed on earth about the nature of light.  Isn't it true that the nature of light and life is the same?  They are made to be shattered and reformed.  Every day, even.  When I look back at breast cancer, it's clear to me that it shattered the structure I'd built for my life.  And in many ways, I rebuilt those shattered structures, so that much of the outer trappings look pretty much the same:  I teach the same classes as before, I live in the same house, I run and do yoga, in winter I go to Hawaii, my yearly round holds the same shape except for the every six-months pilgrimage back to Cape Cod and Boston.  But that is somewhat of an illusion.  Really, those are teetering structures constructed of cardboard.  I reconstructed what I had before to the best of my abilities.  But there is more.  There's also the work of creating, building something new.  Inside me, in that shattered landscape, I see myself wandering around, not knowing where to begin.  I am still finding my way, even with my writing, around this shattered place.  A person begins by picking up one piece of wreckage, moving it from there to there.  Deciding if it stays or goes in the trash heap.  In Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams faces the ocean and prays to receive one word to answer to the confusion following the shattering after the twin towers fell.  This is what she writes:

"How to pick up the pieces?
What to do with these pieces?

I was desperate to retrieve the poetry I had lost."

Standing on a rocky point in Maine, looking east toward the horizon at dusk, I faced the ocean.  Give me one wild word.  It was all I asked of the sea."

This morning, in my notebook, I took a walk, and then decided to start a pile of words, to retrieve them from the shattered landscape of this particular day:


The shattered sky reflected a world, a wholeness, that we can't see.  It was a rune.  It was a beautiful ruin of pillars and blasted light.  A goshawk landed in a tree at dusk last night, and even its wings reflected the blue light of evening.  Two olive feathered grosbeaks landed on top of the mountain ash this morning, stabbing at the frozen bitter berries.  From this shattered world, from the ash heap, these are the pieces I saved.  This is where I begin. 


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Going With God and Chocolate

After my appointment with Dr. S., the oncologist, my sister Mara and I walked the narrow streets off Charles, off the Boston Common, and in that moment I wanted to live my whole life right there, I didn't want to be anywhere else, I didn't want any other day.  I wanted it all, and I had it.  Do you know what I mean?  I was the empress of ice cream, of chocolate, the empress of a beach of sea glass and exotic shells.  I said to Mara, what if we lived in a little apartment above the Starbucks or down the alley in one of those old brownstones?  October's clear air in my lungs and on my face, the sharp-angled light on the brick facades, our bodies weaving between all the walkers in boots and sweaters, I wanted it all, I had it all.  A small wad of bills in my wallet, and I wanted to spend it, waste the currency, the dirty greenish paper, imprudently, without caution, without hesitation.  Spend it all now, every ounce of happiness, of relief, save nothing for later.  I wanted to wander the aisles of the 1950's-era narrow-hipped, chock-a-block hardware store, examining the Dutch Boy cleansers, the Murphy's oil soap, the over-my-head shelves of paints, the walls of tools.  I wanted to buy gifts for everyone I knew in the trendy hipster gift shop, each object displayed on its own small boxy shelf, each over-priced object with its own story to tell, and I wanted to hear it.  Each object a joy, a delight, a puzzlement, sitting there, unbought on its perch.  I recall suddenly a line from an Elizabeth Bishop poem called "North Haven."  It's about the death of her deeply sad poet-friend Robert Lowell.  "Fun" -- it always seemed to leave you at a loss . . . )."  Not me.  Not that day.  Fun materialized:  the Tin-Tin playing cards, the Weirdopedia, the yellow cloth bananagram pouches, the balsa-wood airplanes.  We walked on brick sidewalks past shop after shop like that.  Closet-sized pizzerias, a French patisserie, a long narrow dry-cleaners with the proprietors leaning on the counter, the rows of plastic-covered suit jackets and sherbert-colored dresses as painterly backdrop to their dark hair.  The laundromat empty, the machines still and black-eyed.  A below-ground floor level shoe repair, dusty and ancient.  A store selling only fancy writing papers.  And I wanted it all.  And I had it all, because it was there, and I was there, with my sister.  I was there.  Look, gelato.  Look, pastries.  Let's go into the chocolate shop.  We stood staring into the glass case, commiserating, as though our choices were critical:  the salted caramel, the creme de menthe, the ginger green tea dark, the dark with lemon center, the honeycomb crunch.  Walking on toward the commons, we reached into the crinkly plastic bag, nibbled, stopped to close our eyes, let the sweets melt on our tongues, described their flavors to one another, passed the diminishing squares back and forth.  Was it real, the sensation of bland buttery creaminess giving way miraculously to the barest hint of ice-green?  Was the salted caramel really the best thing I've ever tasted in my life?  Everything on those streets in high-res, even now.  Everything autumn-lit, super-saturated.  Things of this world,  I love you so, my mad-dash hell-bent heart said, and I said, watch this Mara, and ran down the sidewalk and kicked my heels to one side, to the other, and she laughed.  But I meant it.

There is no guaranteed cure for breast cancer, they say, but perhaps there is something better, even if it lasts just an hour.  There is no cure for death, no cure for our failing, ailing mortal bodies and selves, there is only this:  the immediacy, the things of this world, the wasteful, terrible beauty, the gorgeous triviality, the dirt and grit, the danger, the wanting and wanting more of it.  The knowing what's at stake.  The knowing what there is to lose and leave.  And loving it all anyway.  I don't know why this appointment with Dr. S. spilled me onto the Boston streets high and reckless and dumbfounded by luck.  It wasn't that much different than any other appointment, except that at the end of that hour, he said,  "You're the picture of health.  All I can say is go with God ... or whomever it is you believe in."  I threw my arms around him.  And I went.  And I believed in everything, including my only once-in-a-lifetime alive self.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You Know the Drill

By this time, you understand the language under the language.   By this time you know the drill.

The drill is this:  You hit the sheets early the night before, knowing it may take an hour or more to actually fall asleep.  You lie in bed with those familiar chitterings and flutterings in your stomach, as though a flock of redpolls were trapped inside your ribcage.  You call Craig, snap at him because he’s preoccupied with harvesting lettuce from the garden.  When he asks you what you want from him, you tell him you support, and he obliges.  You take a homeopathic remedy to put you to sleep. 

You wake and shower and dress in layers and pack snacks in an insulated bag and pack your computer and papers to grade in a backpack for the inevitable waiting room waits, you fill a to-go mug with tea, a bottle with water.  You worry about the time.  Will you beat the Boston traffic?  Is two and a half hours enough?  Your sister drives, first dropping the kids off at school, first driving in the opposite direction from Boston.  Taking frequent swigs of water, you listen to her kids argue in the backseat, you feel impatient with their petty spats about who said this, who said that, who hit whom in the head with a backpack.  You get mad when Sam sasses you, you say, “You’re not the one going to the cancer doctor, my friend!” 

It’s a different day in that it’s sunny, cool and breezy.  It always seems to be raining and gray when you go to Boston for these appointments, isn’t that part of the drill?  But not today.  Near  Boston you slide effortlessly into the carpool lane.  You listen to your sister talk, you wrap your head around her troubles, you fail to be preoccupied with what’s ahead for you, with anxiety.  You take in the intense redness and maroonness and orangeness of the trees.  This lack of anxiety is also not part of the drill.  Until you pull into the parking garage.  You’re talking to Craig on the cell, and he says, “Oh yeah, the old parking garage, I remember that,” and you say,  “Too bad I don’t have a joint to smoke this time.”  Remembering how you crouched beside the car tire to smoke a doobie after a chemo infusion, to stave off the nausea, which always began about halfway back to the Cape.

You ride the elevator up from the parking garage, you walk across the lobby where a woman isn’t playing a harp, thank God.  Because something about that harp’s celestial chords recalled for you angelic orders, haloes, white-gold light, and in a hospital, being treated for cancer, or even two years after, angelic orders at heaven’s gate are not where you want to be thrust.  You want to be here, at street level, listening to the latest pop or hip-hop music or better yet, outside on the street, with the living, with the well, under the trees, in the crowds moving down Brookline Avenue.  But today there are no harps, just the second elevator ride, your sister pushing the button for floor number nine, oncology.

It’s crowded today.  You wait in line to check in.  You find a seat, you scan the room, and your sister points out that everyone seems happy, everyone’s wearing bright colors.  Did someone find a cure for cancer?  But you feel the eyes of others on you, checking you out.  You know the drill because you do it too, scrutinize each person who walks in the door, wonder about their story, their diagnosis, their fears and hopes.  You watch as the phlebotomists come in and out of the lab to check the basket for the next blood draw.  You wait to hear your name, hope it will be the Columbian one, not the younger one, the one you called “the milker” for the way she pumped the blood out of your finger every week during Taxol treatments.  But it is the milker.  She sits you down, and she’s fast and efficient, no milking, just a needle in the vein.  Two tubes of maroon, and you’re up and out and down the elevator to radiology.

So here’s where knowing the language, the drill, really matters.  You change into the johnny in the tiny cubicle, you leave your shirt and bra in the locker, you sit down in the waiting room with your arms wrapped around your chest and prepare to wait.  You check your email.  You check out the other waiting, nervous women, you flip through the magazines, rip out an article about freezing fresh herbs from Organic Gardener.  Hear your name called after only five minutes.  You walk in, she tells you to take off your johnny, she tells that since the fibroadenoma in your left breast didn’t change in a year and a half, she’ll just be doing two regular views.  You let her arrange you and your breast on the machine, you breathe when she tells you to, your hold still when she tells you to, you relax when she tells you to, you try to read her face when as she’s staring at her screen.  Go back and wait, she says, and the doctor will call you.  You wait again.  Why is everyone getting called except you?  Every woman who’s called gets the desired sentence:  “The doctor’s ready for you now, go and change your clothes.”  You understand the language under the language.  How this means “Your mammogram is normal, you can change into street clothes, you can leave, you are safe.”  No more views, no ultrasounds, no fear.

You wait your turn.  You remember a U-Tube video your friend showed you, of an elaborate prank some French people played.  With heavy equipment, they dug big hole dug in the middle of a running/biking/walking path.  They filled the hole with water, then carefully covered the water’s surface with leaves.  A hidden camera capture people chatting, walking, then suddenly plunged into water over their heads.  You remember that feeling as you wait.  What is coming for you?

“Ms. Saulitis?”

“Yes?”  You look up.  The portly technician holds a clipboard.  “The doctor’s ready for you with your results.  Go ahead and get changed.  Then come through this door, take a right.”

You hurry back to the locker, grab your small bundle of clothes, put on your bra, button your shirt.  You meet Mara, follow the signs back, the technician directs you into an examining room, you sit, and a few seconds later, a white-haired Dr. Groff with a friendly face more like that of a grocery store bagger than a doctor puts out his hand.  He doesn’t even sit down.  “Your mammogram is normal.”  He leans over the desk to sign a piece of paper.  You look at your sister, and both of you smile, melting smiles, ice cream smiles, golden retriever goofball smiles.

For you, now, this is technically just a routine mammogram, once a year, like anyone else.  But you hope you never receive those words in a routine way.  Because it’s as if you get to relive the terrible moment two and a half years ago when you stepped on what you thought was solid ground and fell through into deep water and found yourself flailing.  It’s as if you get your wish, at last.  It’s as if they’d said, “”It’s benign.  You’re fine, you’re okay, you can go home.”  And know it’s an illusion.  You can’t change the past.  But for those seconds of smiling so hard you want to grab your sister and jump up and down, you pretend.  It never happened.  It never will again.           

Friday, October 5, 2012

If on an Autumn's Morning, a Traveler ...

Leaves and rain falling, falling day after day in Homer this autumn.  Just now another rain shower.  Just now, clouds creeping in, erasing the mountains across the bay, just now, something big breathing on the glass that is our fragile world, and we’re right now breathing in this breath on glass, just now, no wind, only rain moving the leaves hanging limp and loose on the trees, the sky darkened, the umber and gold leaves sodden and glowing. 

Just now, somewhere along the Al-Can Highway, my friends are driving south, on a journey, heading out of Alaska for the fall, heading south toward sun and another kind of autumn, driving down below the ridge of the jet stream that’s kept the storms coming over Homer, over Prince William Sound, kept the Pacific Northwest gorgeously warm and clear.  Or maybe they’re just rising, that little family of three, heating tea on their propane stove in the mini-RV, sock footed on the cold floor.  This morning, I read a letter from my friend describing their journey so far.  She described her ambivalence at leaving the security of home, of routine, work she loves, a cozy house warmed by a woodstove.    She described a nascent beginning of another kind of routine, writing as they drive bumping along, reading aloud.  I miss her.  I envy her.   And her letter stirred in me this morning, nudged in me a question:  what kind of journey are you on this fall?  Staying here, staying still, and what if you think of it as a parallel journey, what letter would you write to her to describe today, yesterday?  Where you’ve been, where you’re going.  Not dramas in the town, but something inner.  Something that happens only when you sit down to write, here at the kitchen table, the only sound in the empty house the clock ticking, rain on the deck.  Writing is moving, leaving, journeying, traveling, searching.

Before I sat down to write, to pretend that I too had woken up on the road, to pretend I too was looking out my window at an unfamiliar, new landscape, I found this quote posted online by a friend.  It’s attributed to someone named Billie Mobayed.  “When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold.  They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”   Above the quote is a photograph of a cracked pottery vessel, the seam gold-filled, and yes, it’s beautiful.  It even seems intentional.  And how could I not think of my own body, my own spirit?  And even this broken world?

I’ve been journeying these two years, certainly, even when I’ve not been writing in this blog.  I’ve been healing, learning, struggling, repairing, asking for guidance, for help.  This fall, I’m getting “Rolfed,” a ten-week deep realignment of the body, the skeleton, the muscles, and a whole body and spirit approach to healing.  Healing into Life and Death is the title of a book on my shelf.  That’s what it’s all about, and I’m reminded that there’s no end point, no graduation, just a road you're on that disappears over the horizon.  I don’t want there to be an end to this journey.  I don't want to reach the horizon.  The first Rolfing session, Jody asked me to take off everything but my underwear and stand in front of a full-length mirror.  It was impossible not to see how I’ve been carrying my story.  It was impossible not to read the history of my shoulders, my chest, my neck, to see the cracked and broken places.  Based on what she saw in the mirror, looking at my body, Jody then worked on my neck, my shoulders, my chest.  When she placed her hands on the right side, on the scar, the tears and grief were immediate and immense, pouring up like water between my ribs.  It’s like an underground spring.  Even when I don’t lift the vegetation away to see the source of that achingly cold trickle, it’s there.  And maybe it’s okay.  How can I keep healing?  It’s not about being stuck in breast cancer, though at times I feel stuck in fear of breast cancer, or in dismay at its annoying after-shocks.  Before she started work on my body, Jody asked me to name three wishes, not necessarily reasonable ones.  “Do they have to be possible outcomes?”  I asked.  She laughed.  “These are wishes.  If you could have anything …”  “To be free of fear and anxiety and stress,” I said, immediately.  “To be free of the fear of cancer returning.”  When Jody worked on my frozen, scarred parts, oh it hurt.  “Don’t hold your breath,” she said.  “Breathe right into it.”

Impossible wish, to be free of fear.  I will breathe through the fears triggered again and again; they keep coming, like these autumn rains, arising out of that cold spring, out of the cracks, still unfilled, maybe never filled entirely.  Because there are, as Leonard Cohen wrote, cracks in everything.  My first rolfing session was the day my beloved aunt Valija died of pancreatic cancer in Toronto.  The aunt who coached me during my chemo days, taught me how to fry chicken livers.  “Cross the threshold, Mom,” my cousin whispered into her ear as she took her last breaths.

This is not a passing shower.  The rain falls straight down, continuously as I write.  Varied thrushes wheeze from the alders.  In autumn, they sing again, one more time before journeying south.  They are the first migrants of spring and the last of fall to speak.  Cross the threshold, they say.  Today and tomorrow.  Cross the threshold and keep going.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Storm Water By Moonlight

A dispatch from my last trip to Prince William Sound for the summer.
5 September

Tied up to the Chenega Dock for the night, to ride out the latest storm.  Clouds hurtle by from the south.  Swatches of blue sky run after.  A low cloud dumps rain, passes on.  I collected pans of rainwater all night, and this morning, I drink storm water with my toast.   I have weathered out many big storms in this tiny harbor over the years.  It’s not even a real harbor, with a breakwater to protect it.  It’s simply a dock with half a dozen slips in a natural cove.  The village, hidden by a small, alder-covered bluff, is invisible from here.  Last year, during hurricane force winds, waves washed over the dock.  There is a mile long road from the tiny village of Chenega to the airstrip, so weathering out a storm here offers you a chance to get some exercise, go walking in the rain.  Once, during a storm, my friend Graeme and I were hunkered in the boat I used to use, the bowpicker Whale 1, just 26 feet long, most of that deck.  The cabin was the size of a closet.  We were probably reading when we heard a knock on our window.  A rain-suited man announced a bake sale up in the community center.  Graeme and I suited up and trudged through the wind and rain up the ramp to the big ugly building, up the wooden stairs past the never-working payphone, and shyly opened the door to bright fluorescent lights and the walls lined with villagers chatting, laughing, all waiting for 10 am.  The ladies who’d baked the goods fussed with arrangements of sweet white loaves, buns, muffins, cookies, coffee cakes, banana breads, pastries, on long tables in the center of the hall.  The only non-villagers in the room were Graeme and me, ours among just a few white faces.  I searched the faces for my acquaintances: Mike, Carol, Gail, the crazy postmaster Steve.  But before I could find a friend to gravitate to, some invisible signal said “10 am” and everyone rushed the tables and the baker ladies.  Graeme and I, unaware of the routine, stood back, somewhat shocked at the aggressive shoving and swarming, waiting for a lull.  It was like Black Friday at Wal-Mart; a novice could get run over.  By the time the crowd cleared, there were just a few pawed-over loaves of white bread left, and we bought one, said hi to Mike, who sat surrounded by family, and gave me his bemused “aren’t you a funny and out of place white girl” grin, and we left.  In the boat, rain pouring down, we ripped off chunks of bread, drank coffee, and listened to the drips leaking into pans placed strategically at the foot of the bunk.  The bread, I remember, did not feel good in my granola-cruncher/whole wheat-only stomach, but it feels good in my memory.  So now I go to take a walk through Chenega, and as I do each year, to visit Mike’s grave in the tiny muskeg cemetery.  Thinking of him, I hear a magpie chortle.  Could it be him, still laughing at me?  Mike’s is the only grave planted with wild irises instead of plastic flower garlands.  I have no good sweet bread to leave him, only a chunk of Rolfy Bar, perhaps.  But that’s another story.

Rolfy Bars.  Before we tied to the Chenega Dock, we rendezvoused with the Rolfy again.  She was finishing up loading more carcasses (black humpies 30 cents a pound) and roe for a late run to Cordova.   Despite the dire forecast, Mike wanted to make it at least to Stockdale Harbor.  The Rolfy’s plowed through 45 foot seas, so the forecasted  50 knot winds and 18 foot seas  outside Hinchinbrook Entrance were no deterrent, despite the Rolfy’s s72 year-old leaky wooden hull and never-ending pumps pumping.  While Mike and Lisa monitored the fish chute, Trish and I, in separate boats, whipped up a communal dinner, gluten-free vegan pizzas and Rolfy Bars (Trish) and tofu stir fry with garden veggies (me) with wild, brown and red rice.  Turns out Trish, Mike and I are all  “pesca-vegans.”  Turns out Mike has cancer, a cancer just recently woken from remission.  So we commiserated on the best anti-cancer diet.  They are doing the “chip,” reducing their protein and carb intake.  Rolfy Bars are not part of either of our anti-cancer diets, needless to say.  But I wonder sometimes if food infused with love, food as gift, as communion, doesn’t somehow override its lesser qualities, if it doesn’t have special healing properties.  Like my Tante Valija’s Latvian pieragi, stuffed with bits of onion and bacon.  Or is that wishful thinking, arising from the scent of a warm Rolfy Bar, chock-a-block with mashed banana, walnuts, coconut flakes, oats and chocolate chips?  Oh, the power of wishful thinking.  (The social worker at the Boston hospital where I was treated for breast cancer, herself a two-time survivor, applies the same wishful thinking to her nightly glass of red wine, also a component of no anti-cancer diet I know of).

Last night, after the Rolfy departed, anticipating heavy rain, we put out three pans to catch water.  The boat’s tank water, even when filtered through a simple Britta, is nowhere near as pleasing as mountain stream water from Squire Cove or rainwater from a big storm.   Beside me is rainwater in a glass bottle, rainwater so clear it has the slightest bluish tinge, like a diamond.

All night, the wind blasted the clouds past, and David said when he woke up in the night, the moon was bright through the skylight.  So for awhile, moonlight shone on those basins of rainwater on the back deck, imparting, maybe, that diamond clarity.  What kind of alchemy is that?  I can only say for sure the water’s sweet and cold, and there’s an alchemy in my mind, imagining moon-blessed water entering my body when I take sips.  

This morning, visiting a friend in Chenega Village, we nibbled on deer sausage and she told us about a woman she heard about who apparently has a cure of cancer in Canada.  Kate’s father-in-law, a scientist, years back developed an extract of paw-paw that he says does the same.  The woman’s regimen is burdock root, some digestive elixir, and the paw-paw Kate’s father-in-law produces and sells.  I listened with a mixture of interest and skepticism and I admit, something darker, anger.   When we returned to the boat I said to Craig and David that I hoped that if their research panned out, they would hit the streets handing out their cancer cure.  Or selling it for a dollar a bottle; with all the cancer out there, they’d still make a fortune.  Think of the jubilation.  People tell me often that so and so was cured of Stage 4 cancer by such and such a regimen or potion, but it’s always a friend of a friend, some secondhand story.  The stories I know personally are of women like me and my friend Lauren, emerging from treatment, praying the cancer’s gone, learning to live “as if”, to live with nagging uncertainties.  Though no one would call western cancer treatment kind, and not all western oncologists are kind (mine is), one unkindness they don’t inflict is a false promise.  They are humbled by this wily, sly, complicated, baffling disease.

Today I have on my mind Tante Valija, the pieragi-baker, who is dying of pancreatic cancer.  When I was going through my treatment, she was recovering from hers.  We’d never been close, but those months, we talked often, in Latvian, she offering me advice about how to cook chicken liver, how to soothe reflux.  She and her daughter came to visit me, bringing Latvian food, those piragi, her black bread.  Last month, she got the dreaded news.  After nearly four years in remission, the cancer was back, and raging.  When I talked to her on the phone, she was managing the pain with Tylenol 3 (she’s now on synthetic morphine).  She was preparing herself, she told me.  She was spending her time looking at photographs of family, thinking about all of us.  Soon she’d be with her husband again, her brothers, her mother and father (she is a devout Catholic).  Each day, she said, was a gift.  As the pain intensified, that changed.  She longed for death.  No more life, not at that price.  But then the palliative care doctor figured out the right dosage of morphine.  She has weeks.  Somewhere out there, in some Canadian hinterland, in some Mexican village, on a remote coast in Greece, someone claims a cure for cancer.   But these people I know, they face down the dragon.  What does it mean to die, to live on borrowed time?  What does it mean to be uncertain?  We invent our own cures for our struggles with these questions.

Of course each day I try my best, putting into my body what I hope will keep it safe and healthy and balanced.  I pray for my aunt, for my friends Lauren and Denise and Susie and Rosanna, for my new friend Mike.  Today I drink moon water and eat fresh halibut.  A little wild deer to fortify my heart.  It could become a full-time job sleuthing out some witch doctor to offer me certainty.  It could take (and ruin) my life. 

In my moon daybook, on the page for this week, I find this morning a poem called “The Freeing” by Dawn Thompson.   “She has heard tell water soaked in the moon’s gaze becomes the sweet nectar of free life.”  I realize last night, drop by drop plunking into my bowls and pots, water “soaked in the moon’s gaze” rained down for me.  Unlike paw-paw or digestive elixir, that water, and this day, stormy and wet, is free of charge or promise or guarantee.  It is given freely, and I am its only alchemist.  The woman in the poem “eagerly tips the metal lip to her mouth/ lets the moon dusted river rush her body/ clear her all things caged” and I follow her lead.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Violence: A Daybook

This is an excerpt from a longer essay I'm working on right now.  Yesterday, for some odd reason, images/stories/memories/suggestions of violence kept arriving on the wing, on the airwaves, on the mindwaves, one after another.  So I wrote them down, and I will keep working with them, but here are the ones that relate to cancerland.  

The word violence comes from the Latin violentia, which holds other words like fury, ferocity, and impetuousness, all words that someone who's dealt with cancer well understands.

“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time.  Write your self.  Your body must be heard.”
                                    — Helen Cixous

This morning, wind raged through the trees, a storm hurtling by, swift, vehement, and then the forest grew quiet.  But out of the forest’s quiet came a yearling black bear with silver tipped guard hairs on his back, and he walked up the stairs onto my porch and licked a baking dish my husband had left out for the dog, a baking dish stuck with strips of cooked salmon skin.  It was a salmon my husband had netted from China Poot Creek, a salmon I’d bled, ripping its sharp, white, blood-engorged gills with my bare fingers. And then this bear stood up, and his ears perked up and he placed his front paws on the teak table and looked around, then dropped down and ambled back toward the stairs, and as usual I stood there gaping, in the midst of a phone conversation, too paralyzed to reach for my camera until it was too late and the forest had swallowed him up again into its quiet waiting. 

I’d been sitting by the fire all morning and afternoon reading a grad student’s poetry manuscript, poems of witness to her years living in Palestine, or, as she calls the place in her poems, “no country,” and at first I was reading it with my professorial eye and mind, the critical mind, until I just got sucked in to the necessity of those poems, their writing-for-survival impulse, poem after poem after poem.  They were written by a woman who many nights lay in her bed listening to gunfire, listening to the sound of rocks being thrown at her dwelling place.  They were written by a young woman who sat in her living room evenings listening to the news on TV, news of violence occurring on a street she’d walked down two hours earlier.  She wrote poems of violence taken in with her morning cup of bitter coffee, violence taken in through her skin while being stopped at check-points, observed by unseen eyes, through gun sights, from guard towers.  In her poems, whether it was mentioned or not, there was always a wall, always a war.   And it stopped mattering, if the line breaks or the meters were right, it stopped mattering if this poem or that felt unfinished or too easily drawn to a close, because they were poems of witness, and poems of survival, of being in over her head, a twenty-five year-old heart too serious to stand apart from violence, to honest to let the violence wash past or over or under her.  She let it in, she let it out.  In that way, her poems were like breathing.  And so I withheld the violence of my critical response.
And then my friend called, and then the bear came, and then these migratory-

restlessness-driven flocks of robins and warblers and kinglets came, flinging 

themselves against the windows of my house, and the bang of a robin right near 

my ear, against the glass, was so loud I jumped.  I watched it fly off into the trees,

apparently unscathed.  But my heart banged hard in my chest.  Not long after that, I happened upon an essay by Lidia Yuknavitch in The Rumpus called “Explicit Violence.”  Her article was prompted by a male friend half-jokingly saying, “Enough with the sob stories, ladies,” imploring them to tell no more tales about “fucked up sad violent shit that happened to you.”  And it was like that bird hitting the window again; my heart pounded, but this time, violently.  This time I thought about another kind of violence, which is cancer, which I had, in 2010.  How there’s that unspoken edict, too, after a certain amount of time has passed:  “enough with the sob stories.”  There’s a violence to being told (or telling yourself) you should be past the fear, the trauma.  You are a survivor.

But there’s the violence of what happened to my breast, what's still happening.  There’s violence in the corporeal-memory in the skin cells of the flat bony place that’s left now, in the breast's stead, where I laid my hand all last night because it ached so much, even after two years.  A new electrical twanging, shooting pain, maybe from yoga, maybe from some dead nerve reawakening, had zinged around just under my skin all day, and my pectoral muscle had throbbed.  I salved it myself with arnica because I don’t want to ask my husband to do it; I was afraid he’d be turned off or think I was trying to get him to prove something to me.  (Is that a violence I do to myself, the not asking, the shame?)  He doesn’t want to dwell in Cancerland anymore, that I know, and the flat bony place is Cancerland's very geography.  But there I dwell, and it dwells in and upon me.  I have come to know well the shape of my chest wall, each rib and the bony prominences of my sternum, and the groove of the scar, and the tenderness of bone so close to skin, and the violence of my not speaking anymore, or writing much anymore about cancer, because there, I’m told, I must not dwell; I must move on.  The violence I do to myself is maybe what I’m talking about right now.  The “wipe that cancer look off your face” when you’re talking to him/her/them I say to myself now.  But my chest wall has its own voice, its own rules, its own language of zings, electrical charges, aches, throbs, and it speaks a lot, and in the dark, my hand listens and responds, my palm flat upon the skin, salving an answer, salving away the pain and shame and doubt. 
It’s a violent earth, some would say, an earth of hurricane, predator and prey, cancer, earthquake.  But there’s nothing like violence of the human kind, the violence of father to child, husband to wife, the violence of words, the violence of silence, all the violence that isn’t about survival.  There's the violence we do, daily, to ourselves. The violence of me, with a sponge in my hand, swiping counters of crumbs instead of writing about the violence I’ve known.  The violence of me reading other people’s courageous words, not writing my own.  The violence of me, plugging in a vacuum cleaner, filling a sink with soapy water, stuffing clothes into the washer, the violence of not writing, the violence of me hiding.  The violence of me, typing at the kitchen table, stopping just before the truth comes out.  The violence of my unspilled angers and fears.

The bear does not return today.  Perhaps it has found the winter-killed moose

carcass in the gulch behind our house.  

The one antidote I know to the fear of my own body since cancer is the habitation 

of my own body, so I put away my computer and get dressed for a run.  Today, I 

leave my fake breast at home.  I don’t slip the silicone-filled device into the pocket 

of my running bra.  With a loose capilene shirt on over my t-shirt, no one can tell.  

After my run, half way through yoga class, stripped down to the tight blue t-shirt, I 

remember:  it’s not there.  I stretch and bend my body into triangles, into trees, 

into garlands with a class full of people, with a wall of mirrors, and it’s plain for 

everyone to see, my body’s strange mis-shape, one-breasted, lop-sided, violated.   

Let it be so, I think.  In the locker room after yoga, usually, I turn to face the wall 

when I undress so as to spare other women and girls the shock of my scar, my flat 

chest wall, the missing breast.  To spare them a vision of mutilation.  To spare them

the violence of too much unwanted news.  To spare them the violence of, perhaps, 

their own deepest fears.  But not today.  I stretch my arm up in half moon pose 

and turn my flat, bony chest to the ceiling, my girl-half.  Is there a way for violence 

be holy?  Yes.  Today, I let truth be a kind of holy violence, a fury, yes, a fierceness 

of wild birds, an impetuosity.  Just today, I let my body breathe and speak its 

truths.  I let myself be wholly embodied.



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

One Slim Envelope

Wouldn't it be nice if going through something truly tough -- like cancer, or the death of a child or spouse or sibling, like caring for a parent with dementia, like the loss of a job or a dream -- wouldn't it be nice if surviving the hardest thing, coming through it battered and weakened, came with an envelope arriving in the mail, and in that envelope came a special ticket?  Imagine this.  You walk to the mailbox, feeling finally that you can take a deep and clear breath, feeling finally that you have begun to re-inhabit your body, that grief has eased up.  You open your mailbox and inside you find a letter, a thin envelope.  What could it be, something so slender, weighing no more than a leaf?  You open it to find a ticket.  It is a "get out of hard stuff free" ticket.  Maybe it has an expiration date, maybe as soon as two years hence, but still.  "For going through what you just went through, you are hereby given a break.   This ticket buys you 24 months of smooth sailing."  Cool, you think, pocketing the ticket.  Nice.

But of course there is no such ticket.  And if you're a writer (or any kind of applicant to anything), a slim envelope like that, arriving in the mail, is the opposite of a ticket to free happiness; likely it's a rejection letter.   No, having survived cancer gives you one certain ticket:  a pass back into the land of the living, back into life, with all of its heartbreaks and unanticipated joys.  The slim rejection letter arrives in the mail, the phone rings in the middle of the night, the computer crashes, the commuter crashes into the back of your car.  A loved one tells you that they're disappointed or hurt or frustrated with you and you feel ashamed and have to apologize more than once.  And sometimes this happens all at the same time or in rapid succession.   During the ordinary mundane disappointments of life, where is that "I survived cancer, this little thing doesn't matter, is surmountable, etc." perspective?  The "water off a duck's back" and "roll with the punches" and "consider the source" and "don't sweat the small stuff" and "ommm" and "be the still pond" wisdom of cancer?  And maybe you even secretly wish you could still play the old "cancer card" in moments of fumbling and screwing up.  Thinking people will still cut you slack because you were, yes, a victim.  But after two years, the cancer card has, at least for me, reached past its expiration date.

It's been one of those weeks, rejection letters, screw-ups with loved ones, apologies needed.  And then, this morning, an email from a friend who is moving out of a long-term relationship, literally.   Extricating her physical life from the life of a woman she loves and lived with for many years.  My friend is 60; my friend will start a new life outside of Alaska, as a  single woman.  She is an artist, a writer.   She wrote to ask her friends for "energy" to get her through the packing and grieving and leaving.  I wrote back to her and for some reason a few of things people have said to me over the years about strength popped into my mind, and they led me back to a poem.  My friend Sean always says "stay strong, Eva."  Thinking of him saying that to me, I remembered a poem by Marge Piercy, "For Strong Women."  So I went to my bookshelf and found it:  perhaps the first poetry book I ever owned:  The Moon is Always Female.   This has been a kind of reference book, obviously, as evidenced by its  broken spine, its water-stained pages, the warped corners, the faded and  battered cover.  The book falls (literally) open to "For Strong Women."  The poem opens this way:  "A strong woman is a woman who is straining."  But the part I  typed into an email to my friend was this:

A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs.

And then these lines, from the last stanza :

What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns.  In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only the water of connection remains,
flowing through us.  Strong is what we make
each other.

I have read many beautiful and artful poems in my life, but perhaps no other has taught me as much.  I spent decades ashamed of my "weakness" and "neediness," decades questioning my own voice, as a writer and as a human being.   And of course I still do.  Cancer did nothing to assuage my self-doubt as a writer, my despair at every rejection, my fear of sending out my work because of it.  Every rejection reenacts the old internal struggles, reawakens the old internal critics, throws me into a bottomless funk.  When I read "For Strong Women" again this morning, once again it did its magic, reminding me of what it actually means to "be strong."  And what a liberation, to be taught that it means, in many ways, to NOT be "strong."  Actually, its an utter re-definition of the word "strong,"  including within it what's weak, and even futile, wrong-headed.  Earlier in the poem, Piercy puts it this way:  "She is trying  to raise a manhole cover with her head, she is trying to butt her her way through a steel wall.  Her head hurts."   I once heard the poet Sharon Olds give a craft talk.   She was a tiny, late-middle-aged woman in a blouse and plain knee-length skirt.  She had nice slender legs and silver hair tied back simply in a  ponytail, and she sat in a chair and talked to the audience as though to a group of intimate friends.  Her speaking voice was surprisingly soft.  One thing she said stayed with me through years and years.  She said that through out her twenties, she kept doubting her poems, her claim to be a "poet."  She felt terrified that she didn't understand what a poem really was (as decided by some vague coterie of "they," the editors of magazines, the judges of literary prizes, book publishers, and anthologists).  She kept trying to write "poems" but what was a poem?  Did she even know?  Was she successfully writing one?  One day, in her early thirties, she just gave up.  She decided stop trying to write "poems," and to simply write what she needed to write.  Now she is one of our most acclaimed (and also controversial), contemporary poets.  (Controversial because some criticize the intensely personal subject matter she admits into her poems -- the raw material of her own life).  What combination of forces gave her the strength to claim her voice, her right to put her life to the page in her own way?  I don't know, but her words come back to me, give me strength,  when I think to myself, "I don't even know what a poem/essay is anymore.  I've forgotten how to write one."  So I can't help but think that another's words (maybe Marge Piercy's?) gave her strength too, way back when.

"For Strong Women" ends this way:  "Until we are all strong together, a strong woman is strongly afraid."  Is there any truer sentence for people who have experienced breast cancer?  But today it spoke to me in my post-breast cancer existence.  After reading an email rejection, crying for a while, feeling sorry for myself (damn it, where is my ticket?!), telling Craig how much I HATED being a writer, how I BADLY wanted to quit; after getting the note from my friend about struggling through her splitting-up ordeal; after finding Marge Piercy's poem, I felt driven to write.  I came here, to the place where I write out of urgency, not caring if it's literary, it it's an essay, a prose poem, a self-absorbed journal entry.  In another poem in The Moon is Always Female, Piercy writes "  Don't think because I speak strong words that I am always strong."  The poem is called "Complaint of the Exhausted Author."

In a way, there is a ticket after cancer, redeemable at odd and random moments.  I wrote about it in my last post.  It's the ticket to be deliriously happy just to be alive and well, from time to time slayed by the luck of it.  But that's a ticket given and taken away.  It's valid for the space of minutes or hours.  The harder work is what we do in the long stretches without tickets.  So what else can I do?  When I think of the graduate students I mentor in creative writing, who will someday open those slim rejection envelopes too?  Send my essays out again, send my poems, make myself strong for them.   When I think of the loved ones I've recently frustrated, disappointed, angered, what can I do?  Suck it up.  Say I'm sorry, again.  Forgive myself.  Let it go.  Here is the last stanza of one of the last poems in Piercy's book; it is ostensibly about the speaker's mother.  But perhaps it's about all of us, our failures, the often dark and despairing places from which art, like a watermelon vine from a compost heap, arises.  It's called "Crescent Moon Like a Canoe:"

My muse, your voice on the phone wavers with tears.
The life you gave me burns its acetylene
of buried anger, unused talents, rotted wishes,
the compost of discontent, flaring into words
strong for other women under your waning moon.