Friday, January 27, 2012

On the Spiritual Life of Chickens




The clear sky has sit itself on a slant against the wall.
It’s like a prayer to emptiness.
And the emptiness turns its face to us
And whispers,
“I am not empty.  I am open.
                  —Tomas Transtromer, from “Vermeer”

It’s the last day of my four-day fast, and like others I’ve read about who’ve fasted, I’ve experienced little enlightenment.   The opposite, actually.  A gnawing emptiness, food-envy, frustration, restlessness.  A stark reminder of what all too many people live with day to day (and they don’t have a protein powder supplement).  A reminder of chemo days, eating applesauce and rice water with a baby spoon.  A reminder of how much craving is a part of daily living.  Wishing I were more enlightened, had these things in perspective in the face of my hunger, but I hardly do. 
Maybe that’s why this morning, at 5:30 am, I woke with a nagging feeling of not-enough-ness.  Since I started this cleanse, a voice in my head’s been saying, “You could be doing a whole lot more.”  More for the planet, for community, for strangers, for friends, more.  A more spiritual life.  Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt this inadequacy.  It’s a dark place, a cardboard box folded over myself.  Ever since I remember, I’ve been asking myself, what’s my purpose here on earth?  Some days, we live our lives along an electric current, a sense of meaning, knowing:  This is what I’m supposed to do here on earth.  Most often I feel that when I’m writing. 
When we had news of the stage of my breast cancer, that it was caught early, my sister liked to say, “It’s a save!”  And I felt at times I’d been given, as my friend Asia says, a second chance, a second birthday, a new resurrection.  In the hunger state, the question natters in my brain, “Am I blowing it?  Am I worthy of this health, this renewed health, having my body broken down, stripped down, rebuilt, am I worthy of this incredible gift?”  Swirling, drowning in this feeling, I sat down on my meditation pillow and picked up my journal and wrote.  Isn’t life risk, striking out, the adventure of the unknown?  Isn’t life service to others?  Isn’t life spiritual practice?  What is it I hold myself back from?  What is it I avoid?  Please don’t let me blow it!
And then a hen, out in the coop, began to caterwaul.  In the dark, the sky just tinged along the extinct volcano with morning, a hen laid an egg and announced it to the world, as though it were the big news of the day, the top story.  And just at that moment I was writing in my journal, Is it something about bearing witness, my purpose?  Singing?  Poetry?  As simple as that?  Words for things no one else pays attention to?  Is that was I neglect, searching for something bigger, out there, beyond sight?  My friend David calls our testifying to experience “making an accurate scouting report.”  That’s what’s required of us, bearing witness to what only we can perceive.  Because otherwise no one would hear that hen caterwauling at dawn, laying the dawn’s first egg, announcing this small thing she’s created at the top of her voice, as though hers were the only voice on earth.  She doesn’t ask if she’s significant, if she’s done enough.  This is her creation.  This egg.  Halleluiah.  
And then the morning birds began, each voice announcing itself, its insignificant little life, marking out its territory.  And then, out in the cove, a humpback whale blew, as if to say, “No, it’s me!  It’s me being reborn here!” Is that it?  I wrote.
My friend Asia is a painter, uses paint in such a way that it appears forever wet, dripping.  She wrote to me the other day, that in this way, her paintings remain new to her as the day they were born.  My friend Peggy is a poet.  She wrote a book called Wings Moist from the Other World.  They too, remain newly born, long after they’ve been written.
I wrote a letter to Asia this morning.  Do you think the art we make is fulfilling the purpose of being one aspect of God’s witnessing eye?  I asked her.  And that maybe, if we do our part, collectively, the true earth is made visible, audible, complete?  And it’s a collective effort – your painting joined to my poem joined to someone’s music, another’s dance?  Like these birds repeating themselves all morning long, adding up to the voice of this place?  All of it a prayer out of a greater emptiness?  Is adding our voice, our unique piece, the hardest work of all?
Sometimes it’s like I have to force myself through an aperture, like an egg being laid, tunnel through the narrowness of my own mind and its crippling doubts.  Writing through the tunnel is giving birth to myself, again, out of a terrible claustrophobia, the limitations of all of my judgments.  Those birds repeat the same refrain as yesterday, as the day before.  We can’t even tell the difference between one bird and another.  But that doesn’t stop them singing.  Is that what it’s all about, this being here on earth?    

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Enormous Lungs Breathing in the Dark


It’s dark.  And a being with enormous lungs is breathing out there in the dark.  Not just breathing.  It’s easy to say it’s wheezing, but it’s not asthmatic, in fact, it’s strong, emphatic, forceful.  Air forced through a sieve of emphasis.  I. Am. Here.  Silence.  Air squeezed out of a bellows. Now a calmer breathing, a long resign, almost a hum.  The cove is breathing in the dark, finally, humpback whales have swum in, found their way here, around the north tip of Hawaii island.  I am lying here listening, alone.  Craig is in Anchorage for a scientific meeting.  Something is breathing out there in the dark, something bigger than me, beyond me, and I’m not scared.  Sometimes there’s a flicker of fear, the breath of fear on my neck, as if trying to coax a flame.  Usually, there are plenty of live coals.  But tonight there aren’t any.  My first night alone, the wind blew the bathroom door shut.  Something that normally would send my heart to hammering.  But it didn’t.  The sound of the slamming door carried no echo, found no echo chamber inside me.  I’m enjoying a respite from fear, I don’t even know why.  My body speaks to me, too, but I don’t always hear “cancer” in its whisperings.   

2011 was Year of the Hare, and the hare is a nervous creature.  In Alaska, it was truly year of the hare, with a population explosion of the snowshoe variety hip-hopping tracks all over the snow, turning our yard into a hare crossroads, and chomping the skirts of spruce trees.  It didn’t register to me, that it was Year of the Hare in Chinese astrology.  The other day, I snipped apart my old 2012 daybook, which is filled with references to Year of the Hare.  I taped things I liked, tiny images, into my journal.  After the fact.  Reflecting on my year of fear.  This is a new year, year of the Dragon.  From hare to dragon, that’s a big leap.  For me, hare year was inwardness along with fear, healing, giving way to … what?  I’m not sure yet.  But another book is part of the fabric, I know that.  More writing.  That much I know.

If I’m holding in my lap some kind of embroidery project, a tapestry, if I’m stitching, stitching a life, before and during and after breast cancer, then there are some threads I dropped along the way, some things I put aside during tiger year, rabbit year.  One of the pictures I cut out of the old daybook is titled “Waking Up from a Dormant Cycle.”  It’s funny what goes underground, what falls away.  Do I invite it back in?  Or do I leave it behind?  That’s the question of recovery.  Choosing.  The opportunity to remake a life, to decide what belongs in the pattern and what was there simply out of habit.  This morning I pulled off my bookshelf a handmade book my friend Asia sent to me after my diagnosis.  She asked me to write to her in the book, and I never did, but yesterday, I started.  But first I read what she’d written on the first page.  She wrote of how rare is was “to have in one lifetime the opportunity for rebirth, for transformation.”  She wrote:  “As the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, live each day as a resurrection, return each night to the purpose of sleep …”   She wrote “Only the strong take such journeys and share the stories of spirit, excavated from mortal flesh, again and again …”  The theme of the new daybook for 2012, is, believe it or not, “Chrysalis.” What is it I must excavate from mortal flesh?  That’s what writing is, after all.  Unearthing what’s hidden under a mountain of living.  Unearthing what endures after so much falls away.

The next book I’m writing concerns Latvia, my family history with that place, my time spent there in 2007 and 2009.  I have a friend there who shares my name, Ieva in Latvian, a soul-sister, and we’ve been out of touch until yesterday, for months.  Her life has also utterly changed.  The last time I saw her, she was single, carefree, living in a tiny apartment in the city of Ventspils, riding a bike everywhere, working at the writers’ residency where I was staying.  I don’t know how old she is, exactly, only that she’s much younger than I am years, but it didn’t seem to matter in our friendship.  It’s a friendship conducted in the Latvian language.  A friendship unplanned, that arose in action, a common love of riding bicycles, basically. 

Latvian was my first language, but because I grew up in a town with no other Latvians, it got stunted, stuck in its childish form.  There are many ideas and emotions I stumble to express in Latvian.  And so my friendship with Ieva, which is carried out solely in Latvian (though she knows English well), emerged between sentences and words.  I hesitate to explain it any further.  Except to say, my friendship with her is as spontaneous the old garden sight here on the land.  Laid to rest for a time, still, food plants spontaneously arise (from dispersed seeds):  tomatoes, eggplant, fennel, cilantro, sweet potato, parsley, basil, pushing up among weeds. 

Since we saw each other last, Ieva’s given birth to twin boys.  She’s a mom.  When I wrote to her today, in Latvian, I realized that my study of the language was one of the things that had fallen away from my life.  I was a rusty hinge.  My writing felt tortured in its awkwardness.  I don’t even know how to properly say “I miss you”  to her. It feels like I’m squeezing my thoughts through a meat grinder, and they’re coming out as mangled sentences.  And I know I want to go back to Latvia again.  I want to see my friend.  I want to write again, there, in one of the tiny rooms overlooking the square, and sit at night with Ieva and another friend Maira, translating our work, from one language to the other.

There’s a way those humpback appear, suddenly, breathing in the cove, unpredictable, spontaneous.  At least that’s how it appears to me, the listener.  I lie in bed in the dark, and out of silence, breath arises, the most natural thing in the world.  I’m used to grasping at things, not just desire, but fear, too.  I become hitch-hiker to that whisper that threads its way into my ear in the night.  But there’s another way, a balance between planning, resolving, intending, and listening for what arises, what beckons.  When I was running last night, thinking about the great white shark someone spotted off the islands recently, a sentence arose inside me:  We identify animals by the qualities we value.  A friend told me he heard of a man who free-dives with great white sharks.  He touches them, swims with them.  Who is the animal he’s come to know?  How we react to animals reflects what we value.  Fierceness, slyness, meekness, calm, resolve. 

Through the whales, the ocean is breathing and speaking in the night, a language between words and sentences, a language all its own.    

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Who's That Girl?

Thinking of her alone in Boston, far from all the things she does to remind herself she's alive, valued, necessary -- the giving, the doing, the mothering, the wife-ing, the shopping, the cooking, the tending, the friending, the trying.  Thinking of her in Boston with her collection of books, with her portable altar, with her solitary dinners, walking up flights of stairs, wandering through grocery store aisles wondering, white rice or brown in the radiation diet?  Chard or kale?  Afterward, all walked-out, back in her room that reminds her of dorm days decades past, working her swollen arm into a sleeve.  Thinking of her every day lying back on the table, the scurry of technicians adjusting her position, the scurry of technicians out the heavy door and then her alone with the clicks and hums of the machine and the thoughts in her brain.  Thinking of her alone on the table, lying still, counting the minutes:  six.  Imagining the enormous tonnage of a machine she's never seen, behind a wall of cement, thinking of her with the scientists, sitting in a seminar room, listening to their explanations, the technicalities, the evolution of this design.  Thinking of protons.  The invisible.  Thinking of her as student, as studied.  Thinking of her, one of 25 in the study.  Thinking of the 24 others.  Lucky to be selected.  Thinking of the warp and weft of the word lucky in her context.  The theory of relativity in terms of luck.  Thinking of the hundreds of others cohabiting a lodge called "Hope," the others she seldom sees.  How frightening and weird and even repulsive such a word becomes after cancer diagnosis.  Hope: word dolled out by the cancer-free like a sample.  Try some.  Don't give up, keep it alive, don't lose it, don't sink.  The thing with feathers.  Thinking of her walking alone in the winter city in the rain, beyond prior knowledge, foregone conclusions, old metaphors, received notions, of hope.  Hope too weak a word, too flimsy, for what's required of her.  Hope too shoddy for the new architecture of her body, its unknown terrain.  Hope too lame for the unknown country of who she is now.  Her kind of hope has raven's wings.  Wings of an albatross, who never stops flying.  Thinking of her there, on the sidewalks, among strangers, in the rain, so far beyond any puny idea of a feathery hope, I'll be wracking my brains all day inventing a new word for what she breathes and is.  Thinking of her alone like that, solitary self, wings scorched from the the other world she's lived through and wet from her birth.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Biting Every Sorrow and Every Mango


Nothing needs to be this gorgeous, I wrote the other day in a poem.  And nothing needs to be this bad either.  Right after I wrote the poem, I knew that it had a corollary.  Here on earth, there’s a Book of Job to any praise song.  On my shelf is a poetry book by Deena Metzger called Ruin and Beauty.  Another by Barbara Ras called Bite Every Sorrow.  Halfway through Mark Doty’s beautiful, heart-breaking memoir about his lover’s death from AIDs he shifts out of the mode he’s been writing in, meditative, reflective, a man walking the shore and swamps and woods with his dogs slowly healing from years of sorrow.  Halfway through the book, a friend dies in a car wreck and Doty’s back gives out.  He gets a massage, realizes his body is holding measureless pain, bitterness, rage, self-pity, locked in the muscles and joints.  As part one of the memoir ends and part two begins, he’s decided he must re-enter the pain, write out the years of his lover’s illness and death.  All of his effort at care-taking locked his own suffering into his body.  The only way to unlock that hold of pain is to walk toward it.  That part of the book is called “Through.”

There’s no antidote to grief but grief, someone said.  There’s no way around, only through.

I’ve been blessedly free of fear and grief and self-pity this last month, since leaving Alaska.  But I know it’s a hiatus, and each morning, I write out my gratitudes as part of the ritual that begins my day, to remind myself that the gifts of equilibrium aren’t given endlessly to us, the way waves are, the way wind is.  They are given the way a sighting of four magnificent frigate birds spiraling low over the our land is, and we just happen to drive up during the five minutes they are right there.  The word “beatitude” comes into my mind, a relict of my Catholic upbringing.  Gratitude, beatitude, sounds good, but what does the word mean?  I look it up, find that the adjective beatus means “happy, fortunate, or blissful” and of course it’s the root of beauty.  They are blessings, beautiful ones, and sometimes they are followed by mirroring woes.  The beatitudes represent ideas of love, humility, mercy, compassion.  It’s the old “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are the meek” along with those who weep, who hunger, who mourn and are persecuted or deprived.  The beatitudes were meant as comfort. Those who mourn will be comforted, they say; that is the blessing of suffering.  Some say the beatitudes have been used to subjugate people’s spirits.  If we believe earth is just a way-station of suffering on our path to heavenly realms, we can tolerate any injustice.  But for those of us who believe otherwise, perhaps a beatitude is simply a way of acknowledging the back and forth nature of beauty and terror, the mirror side of joy and suffering.

I’m experiencing a microscopic version of that duality.  Mine today is this:  family/solitude.  This morning I stepped into the writing room alone, in a quiet house.  Stepped back into my own writing life, a solitary place.  We dropped Elli and Peter off at the airport yesterday, Eve and Eivin the day before that.  When people fly away from an island, the sense of departure is magnified.  They’ve left this chunk of earth behind.  It’s been a month of family time, connecting with these grown-ups we raised, co-habiting, working together, gardening, planting, cooking, creating, adventuring, cleaning, even building sand castles.  These three kids of Craig’s, when I first met them, gave me another stab at childhood.  I loved so much to play with them, to invent magical realms in the woods with the girls, leading them once on a quest, in a cove in Aialik Bay to find Aphrodite’s garden.  It was a ploy, honestly, to get them off the boat, to get them hiking in the rain.  But we did find the garden, a forest carpeted in knee-deep moss, branches draped in witch’s beard.  I can see twelve year-old Eve right now in my memory, lying in a cupping of moss under a huge hemlock, Aphrodite’s bed perfectly holding her body's shape like a palm.  She’s in bright yellow raingear.  I can hear Elli’s shrieks as she slides down a mossy slope on her rain pants, picking up speed, airborne after hitting a rock.  I loved to fly kites with Lars.  I knew deep down that even at eight he loved kite-flying less than I did.  But perhaps got a kick out of my ridiculous joy in it.  Last year, they found me returned from cancer treatment in a more somber state, less child-like, in the grip of fears I’d never faced before.  This last month all the messages in cards I received reminded me to come home to that old joy.  Craig’s card says, on the cover, “A day without laughter is a wasted day.”  A quote by Charlie Chaplin.  Elli gave me a pair of silver earrings called “Buckets of Joy.”  (After swimming I have to overturn them; they fill with seawater).   When I arrived in Hawaii, the first night, after I set up my little altar and meditated, I drew an Osho Zen card called “Celebration,” depicting three women dancing in the wind and rain.  And it rained and blew a lot those first couple weeks here, and we celebrated.  So now …

It’s a day of transition, finding my way back into myself, and asking, can I discover the ability to fly a kite or wander in the woods looking for – what?  Some sort of magic, on my own, or with Craig?  Can I be twenty-something-like sometimes all on my own?  And it's back into myself again, from my identity as part of a family to my solitary identity, to the sense of being enough that writing brings, that it brought to me all last fall, the hours and hours alone at the kitchen table, writing the first draft of my book. 

But first, a huge gape of loneliness greets the day, a pressure on my solar plexus, this miniature version of loss, of letting go, of goodbye, of time moving and constant change.  I walked around the land last night with the dog, the dewy grass lit by the moon, startling sleeping birds from their roosts in the milo trees.  The ocean washing into cove at the outflow of the gulch was a churned up platinum, light made liquid.  When I paused there to watch the water, the dog paused too, sat on his haunches and looked in the direction I was looking.  The lighthouse cast a brighter flare across the water over our faces.  Perhaps the dog is a kind of mirror, too. 

Now, at sunrise, Craig runs barefoot through the grass with the dog toward the tool shed, and I lose sight of him as he enters the orchard.

It s not anything like what Mark Doty went through, writing about Wally’s death.  This is another, lesser event to travel through, letting the beings we raised go into their own lives, reclaiming ours.  I watch Craig now walking back through the orchard, what, looking for mangoes?  The dog standing there, watching him, watching to see what he’ll do next.  Now they are trotting to the other side of the orchard. 

I’m here in a place where dew is thick on the grass this morning, and silvery and I use words like “orchard” in January.  And my lover walks barefoot.  I’m alive here in this place, where I lower shades against the mid-day sun to cool my writing room.  Now Craig walks back toward the house, calling to the dog, his arms laden with fruit and something he’s retrieved from the shed.  Today I am knocking at the door to myself, asking to be let back in, after having walked along the edge of the cliffs under the moonlight, the cuffs of my pants wet from the dew, looking for something, perhaps finding it, perhaps carrying it in my arms, refusing to put it down, some magic, some light.  And I’m looking out the window.  I’m sad and happy now watching Craig place mangoes in a basket on the counter and boil water for our morning tea.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Just Another Morning Prayer


Morning Prayer

“Nothing needs to be this lavish.”
– Mark Doty, from “Couture.” 

Nothing needs to be
this gorgeous, either, this particular
shade of a trade-ripped Prussian blue
Pacific, this chalk-dust-green of sheep
pasture gone to seed, grass so high,
the sheep disappear, except
for the springing lambs.  Nothing
needs to be this breezy, a cooling
wind sweeping beneath a belt
of heat, whipped off the sea, froth
of air, nothing needs to be this
steady, this certain, as ocean itself,
pounding the cliffs
into submission, soothing
the intense, black razors of
lava into egg-cups and basins
and begging bowls.  Nothing needs
to be at all, and still, God grant me more
of this, already, endless and
unnecessary.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ordinary Waves


I have a conflicted relationship to this place we come to every winter:  the Big Island of Hawaii.  The piece of land we share with Ralph and Laura, friends who live here year round, abuts a 200 foot cliff above one of the roughest ocean channels in the world, called ‘Alenuihaha.  It’s thirty miles across the channel to the island of Mauii, which on a clear day appears to the west like the memory of a greener island, distant in time.  But this place, right here, is itself a wild spot on the coast, battered by trade winds, no white sand beaches, no snorkeling reefs, just swells and wind-driven waves endlessly smashing into the cliffs.  The volcano rising above this part of the island is old, extinct, draped in forest and field.  The island here is not being newly created, as it is on the other side, where lava streaming down from Kilauea spills into the ocean, steaming, birthing more and more island.  Here, the land is being worn down by rain and wind and waves.  It rains a lot.  Clouds catch on the slopes.  And non-native species thrive in the lushness.  Early this morning, Eivin and Peter, Elli’s boyfriend shot two wild pigs.  Eivin and Eve, consummate hunter/gatherers, want to bring a cooler of wild pig to Alaska when they leave next week. The Polynesians who settled here brought pigs with them from distant islands on their voyaging canoes.  Before that, there were no mammals in Hawaii.  The sea-farers also brought coconuts, kikui nut and maile trees, breadfruit, sweet potato, taro, the staples that feel indigenous to the islands now but are not, even thought they’ve been here thousands of years.  The oldest plants, the sandalwood and ohia and koa and fern trees, are endangered now, along with their associated birds and butterflies, ferns and mosses.  I dreamed when we got this piece of land of reforesting the whole 13 acres with sandalwood, learned, from the labors of Ralph, who bought starts, joined them to host trees, watched most die, of the impossibility of it.  Now I visit the one surviving, thriving sandalwood tree on my daily walks.  Why is something native here so fragile, so difficult to grow?  When once it flourished?  Instead, the invaders flourish.  Ironwoods, planted as windbreaks by the plantation owners who tricked the native Hawaiians out of their lands, thrive.  As do the bamboos, planted by the Japanese plantation workers to remind them of home.  The Norfolk island pines in tall straight rows on the old Bond Estate up the hill serve as windbreaks for a macadamia nut tree farm.  Why is it so hard to restore?  So easy to extirpate, destroy?  Restoration, like healing, is such a slow process.  Healing is a natural force, unstoppable, but at times it seems to work against other natural forces that want to wear things away.  The grass endlessly dropping its seeds on the garden.  The kiave endlessly sprouting on any patch of bare ground.
  
How do you love a wounded, compromised place, when you are someone who’s been drawn all your life to wilderness, to what’s timeless, untouched, pristine, pure, and holy in its primeval state?  I faced this same question after the oil spill in Prince William Sound.  How to love a damaged place? And of course it’s a question of the body too.  Loving a body compromised, altered, injured, scarred.  Loving the self despite its flaws and bad habits.  My counselor yesterday said “being humbled is good.”  She meant in the moments of wounding or woundedness, when we make mistakes and have to own up, when we’re exposed for the damaged goods we are, that’s when we change, like a seeds that need fire to germinate. 

There are little bright yellow birds that perch in the avocado trees, saffron finches native to South America.  There are house sparrows, house finches, and cardinals, yellow-billed and northern.  There are coral-white cattle egrets stilt-legged and graceful among heavy, graceless cattle or following in the wake of mowers.  And sweet little olive Japanese white-eyes, mejiro, who’ve been here since 1937, perhaps also released to comfort plantation workers.  And there are loud chattering mynas that land on the roof every morning, relatives of starlings, the ratty birds of my childhood, gregarious, raucous, territorial, bossy.  They wear threadbare, scruffy feather jackets, and their bills are yellow, like they’ve been eating too many mangoes.  I resist loving them, though it wasn’t their choice to colonize this place.  They were brought.  They’re so many generations from their native home in Asia, they consider themselves home.  I read that in Sanskrit, mynas are saarika, but also kalahapriya, meaning “one who is fond of arguments,” or chitranetra, meaning “picturesque eyes.”  That was an optimist, who saw that little yellow triangle at the outer corner of a myna bird’s brown eyes as picturesque.  That optimist was seeing a tiny flag of light, perhaps, in a greater darkness, and clung to that light, and survived because of it.  The mynas remind me of the magpies back home, which are also reviled for killing other birds’ chicks.  They land on my roof in Alaska with the same insistent stamping of feet, and they announce themselves with a similarly obnoxious barking.  And steal my dog’s food, driving him to distraction.

Last night I walked down into the gulch with the dog to see the forecasted big swells – which were not there.  They never manifested.  It was only ordinary waves churning in, driven by the trade winds, and no Japanese glass floats, only ordinary flotsam on the beach, plastic trash I collected and stashed in a heap near the trail, to someday haul up and out of there.  Ordinary wind.  No whales, no dolphins.  Last year, I stood on a headland in that gulch, my heart pounding, as twelve-foot swells broke at my feet, driving me back, causing me to throw my hands to my heart.  I cried and laughed at a force bigger than any trouble I might name, including cancer.  “The sea is another story,” says the poet Adrienne Rich.  “The sea is not a question of power.”  In that moment, the sea answered with its power a question I couldn’t stop asking, but couldn’t name.  I needed those enormous waves to scare me out of myself, to scour me clean of the previous eight months.  I needed a fear not phantom, not what-if-ish, but real and immediate. 

I went looking for that kind of power last night, something transformative, but found only the everyday powers that be, insistent and unceasing.  Before climbing back up out of the gulch, the dog and I walked up the old streambed, into an ironwood grove.  I scanned the eroded slopes for the glint of an antique bottle, some relic of the sugar cane days, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.  The ironwoods were short, forming a canopy just over the top of my head, with branches slung low to the ground.  It looked like a Japanese garden.  Pigs had rooted in the duff.  In the forest above, mynas bickered.  I stopped and looked around for a place to sit, wondering if I could love that place, and the place wondered the same about me.   

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

To Believe is To Believe


One swell subsides, another approaches.  A strange day, weather-wise, foggy mysterious night, morning of drenching rain and violent wind gusts.  A smoky pall over the island, blowing by, emanations from the Kilauea eruption – vog.  Or simply fog, moisture evaporating off the land.  We couldn’t tell which.  The day with the dimmer switch turned down.  This evening, the wind died.  I put the chickens to bed, threw in a few mango rinds, papaya skins, collected six eggs in a bowl, and with a long-handled fruit-picker nabbed a couple mangos from the tree beside the coop, then walked with my booty along the coast, stood overlooking the gulch and in the distance, the lighthouse flashed its beam on and off and on and on and a dull surf boomed.

There’s a kind of low bank of moist, sopping clouds in the Gulf of Alaska.  We went out there once, Craig and me and Lars, who was about 10 at the time, on our friend Harold’s fishing boat, Rocinante.  He let us hitch a ride sixty miles offshore to the halibut fishing grounds so we could biopsy sperm whales.  I went to sleep as we left the shelter of Resurrection Bay and Harold steered the boat southeast through the night.  Well, that’s not entirely accurate.  At one point, he fixed a course, set all his alarms, and slept in the bunk beside the helm.  So the boat alone transported us across the Gulf.  I woke in that perpetual fogbank, no horizon, everything gray, and all around us, winging by, albatross.  We swayed in the swells, as though in a hammock, as though suspended in the air, or held up by the slicing wings of the birds.  The clouds enveloping the northern end of the island of Hawaii tonight reminded me of that.  In fact, our friend Harold once brought Rocinante to Hawaii, alone, just to see if he could.  Due south from Alaska.  Nothing in the way.  No albatross in the Hawaiian version of those oceanic clouds, but four magnificent frigate birds wheeled over the bluff as Craig and I drove home late this afternoon.  Black javelins slicing the thick sky to pieces.  As I walked alone with the dog along the bluff, I was comforted by the familiarity of the damp clouds, the mugginess of the air, the smell of iodine and salt.  In fact, the forecasted big swell on its way here originated in a Gulf of Alaska storm.  A wave in my Alaskan home finds its way here, without effort.  The way something that happened a decade ago returns now to ruffle my hair.

On New Year’s Eve, as is our tradition, we sat around a fire writing down the things we wanted to release from our lives, and the things we wanted to bring in, and then we threw the slips of paper into the fire.  More joy, I wrote.  The energetic healers I worked with on Cape Cod during cancer treatment told me to navigate toward joy from now on.  That, they felt, should be my new heading in life.  Not easy for a Latvian, but I am trying.  Living as if every beautiful thing comes after this moment, right now, with the faint sound of wind chimes and a gentle surf in my years, is staying true to that course, I believe.  I finished the novel of that name today, Everything Beautiful Began After.  A few pages from the end, the main character Henry is nine years out from his lover’s death.  “Sometimes it’s all he thinks about.  But he doesn’t stop walking anymore.  He doesn’t stop looking around.  He keeps going . . . And he is enchanted by the beauty of small things:  hot coffee, wind through an open window, the tapping of rain, a passing bicycle, the desolation of snow on a winter’s day.”  He carries everything that came before, all the beauty and grief, all the healing and shattering.  I list the beauty of my day’s small things:  watching Eve sleepy-slow ambling through the orchard to the house in the morning; sharing coffee with Elli; billows of rain; the tip of the dog’s tail moving above tall grass; a humpback whale’s fluke smashing down on the surface of the cove; the sensation of my body running, running on an old sugar cane railroad bed, hot to the core, then plunged into the cool ocean, slowly releasing its heat; salmon and fresh greens for dinner on the porch with the family; laughing playing banana grams with made-up words. 

In today’s blog post by Hester Hill Schnipper, the oncology social worker at the hospital where I was treated, she quotes poet Christian Wiman, from his new colletion, Every Riven Thing:  “To believe is to believe you have been torn/from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim.”  Wiman, it turns out, is suffering from a rare cancer of the blood.  Standing on the rim of the abyss, the view before and behind is crowded with the smallest of things, their shadows, and their beauty.  To believe is to believe in them.  

Monday, January 2, 2012

Everything Beautiful Comes After


9:15 pm.  Sound of a heavy swell shouldering in below the cliffs.  A half moon perched on a cliff of black sky.  The wind, at last, becalmed.   Cool breeze off the old volcano after a hot, muggy day.  I’m sitting at my desk in the dark thinking about the title of a novel my sister sent to me for Christmas.  Everything Beautiful Came After.  What a way to live life, as though it were true.  After what?  Anything you choose.  Even cancer.  In the book, an archeologist falls in love with a painter in Greece.  She dies.  He spends two years flying in jets all around the world.  All his life he’s been carrying an old grief.  Now he carries two losses, side-by-side.  I keep asking myself, did everything beautiful come after his infant brother died?  After he fell in love?  After he lost his love?  After grief eased?  When is before?  When is after?

Yesterday, January 1, Craig and I, and Craig’s grown-up daughters and our son-in-law had a family meeting.  After living together in Hawaii for a few weeks, tensions had built up, miscommunications.  I realized we aren’t in a parental role anymore.  We are all adults, and we have to co-exist as adults, not as parents and “kids.”  And Craig and I, middle-aged, have a lot to learn from the twenty-somethings, from their idealism, from their beliefs about honest communication and equality.  I realized being middle-aged can be, maybe should be, like being a sophomore in college.  We’re in the middle of our education.  Not wise.  Not elders.  Not young.  Not na├»ve.  Having so much to learn from those older and younger than we are.  The alternative is to harden, ossify.  So I was held accountable by these people I helped to raise. 

And I realized another thing, that just as it’s over, playing the parent card, it’s over playing the cancer card.  I’m truly back in the land of the living now.  Since I’ve been in Hawaii, I’ve felt fully healthy again, back in my body.  I’ve spent days free of mortal fear of cancer recurrence.  I can no longer claim fragility.  I have no excuses for bad behavior.  I haven’t re-entered and re-inhabited my old life; I’ve entered a new terrain.  I’m still coming to know who I am in this new place:  imperfect and flawed in new ways, ways I’m discovering day by day.  In Mark Nepo’s daybook, I read an entry in which he described someone carrying two cans of paint up to the door of a house.  Unwilling to put down the cans, he tried to jimmy the door open and ended up falling, spilling paint all over himself.  There are many things I’ve had to put down to open the door, to enter this new life.  Many illusions about myself.  I've had to put down some relationships in my life.  And self-deceptions I’ve carried around with me.  Things look different now.  Even in the mirror.  My curly Betty Boop hair reminds me:  things are different.  Not easier.  I'm more accountable to this life of mine.     

Everything beautiful came after.  I’d like that to be my faith.  What would it be like to live my life that way?  What will tomorrow be like if it's true.  That everything beautiful comes after I lie down in my bed tonight, close my eyes, and fall asleep to the churn, in my ears, of swells below the cliffs, and the screech of a barn owl.