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.