Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Poem to End the Day

Another poem, this one by Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa, a poem to end the day, a day when I ran at dusk along the coast with the dog, through grass taller than my head, ran with a stick for cutting through crab spider webs, ran on an old sugar cane railroad bed blasted through rock, then out in the open, through cow pastures, under ironwoods, along dead electric fences, the dog slinking beneath the wires, leaping above the grass chasing mongoose, the dog joyous to be running at last at day's end, running in circles around me, leaping at me in happiness and gratitude, running with him under gray scudding clouds into wind, inhuman, alive wind, running along cliffs below which gray waves bashed themselves, wind like a storm coming, just ordinary trade wind, but this evening, no every evening, when I run that way, alone, no human habitation in sight, with the dog running on ahead, the wind not ordinary, but like expectation, like portent, like something coming, something big, and good, and urgent, and out-of-control, and unknowable, salt-wind urging us along, Kohala mountain wrapped in cloud.  A poem to end a day that drew to its close with running through a herd of cows, who jogged upslope, turned to look at us and bellow, scaring the dog just a little.  A poem to read after dropping down into a gulch, running down a steep slope, dusk now, at the bottom the sea crash-landing against the boulders, wind sending up seafoam in clots, spattering on the headland rocks, white salt-splats in my hair, and suddenly I was talking aloud in Latvian to no one, saying putekli, putu crejums, migla, dusmiga jura (dust bunnies, whipped cream, fog, angry sea), a run ending on top of a headland, running straight into chaos, gorgeous wild chaos, waves crashing below, and wind shoving me around, wind trying to push me down, bullying, shoving, and me breathing loud in response, raising my arms, bending, throwing them down, breathing it out, whatever it is that's lodged inside, old fury or pain, fear, loneliness, the wind carrying away the sound, drowning it out, the wind howling its own anguish, taking mine, the dog, hot and panting, clambering down from the headland to jump into the crashing water, letting it douse him, wash him clean of whatever it is dogs hold onto, then we were running home, to dinner, salmon and breadfruit and eggplant and then this, a poem to end a day, a day when I ran ran alone with the dog, out of hiding, a salt-tang on my tongue, in my hair, maybe it was expectation, maybe it was hope.

Now That We Have Tasted Hope
by Khaled Mattawa
Now that we have come out of hiding,
Why would we live again in the tombs we'd made of our souls?
And the sundered bodies that we've reassembled
With prayers and consolations,
What would their torn parts be, other than flesh?
Now that we have tasted hope
And dressed each other's wounds with the legends of our oneness,
Would we not prefer to close our mouths forever
On the wine that swilled inside them?
Having dreamed the same dream,
Having found the water behind a thousand mirages,
Why would we hide from the sun again
Or fear the night sky after we've reached the ends of darkness,
Live in death again after all the life our dead have given us?
Listen to me Zow'ya, Beida, Ajdabya, Tobruk, Nalut,
Listen to me Derna, Musrata, Trables, Benghazi, Zintan,
Listen to me houses, alleys, courtyards, and streets that throng my veins,
Some day soon, in your freed light, in the shade of your proud trees,
Your excavated heroes will retum to their thrones in your martyrs' squares,
Lovers will hold each other's hands.
I need not look far to imagine the nerves dying,
Rejecting the life that blood sends them.
I need not look deep into my past to seek a thousand hopeless vistas,
But now that I have tasted hope
I have fallen into the embrace of my own rugged innocence.
How long were my ancient days?
I no longer care to count.
I no longer care to measure.
How bitter was the bread of bitterness?
I no longer care to recall.
Now that we have tasted the hope, this hard-earned crust,
We would sooner die than seek any other taste to life,
Any other way of being human.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Church on Time: A Dispatch

The poem on yesterday’s Poetry Daily website was “The Mass Has Ended Go in Peace,” by K.A. Hays.  Yesterday, a Sunday.  The poem’s title sent a jolt of recognition through me, sent me back to Sundays growing up.  How many times did Sunday morning include those words, but with a tag end:  “The mass has ended.  Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  The mass has ended, releasing a tide of relief inside my teenaged heart, followed close on the heels by major chords.  Standing.  Looking up and over my shoulder to see Lucille Neveu, my piano teacher, face lit by the lamp illuminating her sheet music, leaning forward into the hymn.  Leaning forward into the rest of Sunday, brunch, homework, scumbling around in my father’s potato patch, 60 Minutes, Masterpiece Theatre. 

Yesterday didn’t seem like Sunday, really, until I woke last night at 12:30 am, wrapped myself in a blanket, and wandered to my writing room in the dark.  To be honest, the only time Sunday feels anything like the Sundays of childhood is when I’m on Cape Cod, scrambling with my sister and her kids to get to the Unitarian church on time.  But reading the poem, my laptop glowing in the dark, I sensed a Sunday taking shape behind me.

I can tell now, waking up as I do almost every night, when trying to fall back asleep is a fruitless enterprise, when lying in bed kicking the sheets off, yanking them back on, turning on my side, my front, my back, results, inevitably, in hooking onto wherever my mind’s freight train’s headed, unknown destination, unchosen, like a grass seed latched onto a runner’s leg.  Then all the day’s replayed, rewound, respun, stitched with worry, litanies of discontent, confession of sins, analysis of data.  In my mind’s church, I’m trapped on a hard pew listening to a rambling homily that never ends well.  It never ends with the words "go in peace."  It just hitch-hikes to another train, my hobo brain.

So I found myself on the futon couch in my writing room, reading “The Mass Has Ended Go in Peace.”  By then, it was 1:30 am (it actually took an hour for me to accept that those weary hobo mind thoughts would not bore me back into sleep, they were no lullaby). 

And then the train pulls into its inevitable stop.  The middle of the night is Cancerland.  You’ve crossed into another time zone.  In Cancerland Pacific Time, it’s always the middle of the night.  You’re always the only one awake.  And it aches, the flat place on your chest, where you can feel the contour of each muscle, rib, hollow, divet.  And you remember images you saw recently, black-and-white photographs of young women with breast cancer,  women under 40, nudes, on a website called “The Scar Project.”  The images haunt you and at the same time keep you company.  They stand beside you, faces lit by the fuel drum fire hoboes kindle along the tracks.  Those women defy the dogmas of the weird other world you inhabit day to day, where you walk around and act like an inhabitant of an ordinary time zone.  After a day like yesterday, the throb, the tightness across the landscape of your scar is particularly intense.  Like a physical manifestation of a psychic state, loneliness.  Loneliness also haunts you and keeps you company in the middle of the night.  It draws your hand to your chest.  In case you’re confused about which place is real, which place is home, it calls your hand to feel the dips between ribs, the bony escarpments and rift zones.  It calls you back.  The images of the Scar Project women bare so much more than their physical selves, their scars, amputations, reconstructions.  The bare expressions on their faces haunt you and keep you company in the dark.  Their eyes more naked than their chests.  In their looks of loss, fear, defiance there’s also WTF.  WTF is what your mind says whenever you look in the mirror, still after nearly two years.

It’s beginning to feel strange, time, and the memory of that summer of surgery and waiting and testing and chemotherapy.  Not like a bad memory receding, a town receding as a train pulls away and rounds a bend.  Sometimes it feels like she’s still there, that version of me.  Last night, listening to the trade wind muscle around the house, I thought of the attic room of my sister’s house, wind buffeting the roofline, the dormers.  I put myself back there.  No door, maybe a light leaking up from the living room, where at 1:30 am my sister might still be transcribing her medical charts into her computer, watching Rachel Maddow, or asleep curled over her laptop, the dog asleep at her feet.  The ping of emails arriving on my brother-in-laws office computer.  Feeling as though I am on a boat, being carried.  Feeling the house below me, my sister’s family, like an enormous rescue ship.  And at the same time feeling that I’m up in the rigging, alone.  Feeling safe and trapped and alone at the same time.  I don’t want to leave her there, that wide-awake-me, I can’t, I won’t.  As though time is a series of parallels, and I can reach across to her, still there on in the attic room, cell phone alarm set to 5:00 am for the trip to Boston for a chemo infusion.  The mass has not ended.  Like the Bible with its parables read again and again, the same stories, as though Lazarus is continuously dying and arising, as though the loaves and fishes are eternally multiplying.

This is a dispatch from Cancerland, from the a post-midnight time zone, a place probably unrelatable, untranslatable.  Populated by voices from the last few weeks, conversations, images, things I’ve read and seen and heard about, deaths, diagnoses.  A friend talking to me of the mind-body connection, of Louise Hay’s theory of breast cancer resulting from an imbalance in the way one nurtures, and my hackles arising.  This friend feels she’s finally brought herself into balance, healing years of digestive problems, constipation, and when I told her how angry those theories made me (and it’s irrational, I know, but I feel the roil of it arising in my throat as I write, what I might describe as bile, or reflux, or a scream concentrated in the hollow between my collar bones), she persisted.  “It’s not that you’re doing something wrong; it’s about imbalance."  I said, but what about Michelle, a thirty-something yoga teacher she knew, mother of two little girls, who’d died the week before of cancer of the appendix.  What was her imbalance?  And the friend said, "Oh, I could see she had imbalances."  And now the women in the Scar Project photos seem to walk forward, one by one, toward me.  Only their WTF looks can respond adequately.  They call me back from the time zone where, two-and-a-half years ago, I too believed I could keep myself safe.  Enough counseling, enough organic produce, enough exercise, enough fresh air, enough healing.  (And all along, I know now, maybe ten years, maybe more, I had cancer; it was growing).  I step back across into this time zone, where I live now, and stand among those Scar Project women.  The land where we live the whys and uncertainties is largely unexplored country, still, and we have only flashlights.  Mine is right here beside me, and when I hear something bang or scuttle, I turn it on and cast the beam around until my heart stops pounding.

This is a dispatch from another time zone.  In the company of my fears and unknowns, with nothing between my hand and my flat chest, alone, it’s where I feel most real.  It’s the place from where I bow my head and whisper, “The mass has ended go in peace.”

Here is the link to the Scar Project sight, if you’re brave enough to look into these eyes, the inhabitants of this place: http://www.thescarproject.org/gallery/

And here is the poem: 

The Mass Has Ended Go in Peace

—not in knowledge, but in calm; not in indifference,
but nearly. Under bullying fog the white houses
stand with effort on the coast, the tides teasing
the scrub blue, the land beneath hassled by waves,
drowning in salt-wine. The lichen, as scalloped and ridged
as the cliffs, breathes red and gold; its smell, like the waft
of earth to heaven, is nearly imperceptible, a touch of fish-rot
and smoke. (I asked, Lord, for stillness and lack of concern.)
The town here could be wiped clean from the land—
no streak or smear of roofs, no smudge of walls.
But the people go on painting the village white.
The weathered wood chokes on its dust; the new whiteness
laughs through fog. I asked for acceptance and got the reek
of paint and a bright house. I can see inside the house: a woman,
sweating and bent, putting away the rollers and the cans.
--K.A. Hays

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Revised by Moonlight

A writer I met last summer, Brenda Miller, keeps a blog called "Spa of the Mind," and this morning’s entry was about revision.  First, the physical, renovation version, then the writerly version.  She describes revising/renovating her small house, then likens it to revising a piece of writing.  This morning I’ve been thinking about how you can revise a whole day, moment to moment.  I don’t mean revisionism, literally rewriting the past, gussying it up, prettying it up, or making it sound worse than it was.  Emily Dickinson famously said, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.”  Not even that.  But looking at the truth, perhaps, from a slightly different vantage point.  The way this morning, Craig and I climbed up and down and across a headland to get different perspectives on incoming waves. 

I woke this morning to the waning, but still big, moon illuminating the sheep pasture.  The sheep stood or lay facing that moon.  In the silvery grass, they were very still, very quiet.  The roosters crowed, and the waves boomed below the cliffs.  In my pajamas and a jacket, I whistled for the dog, then walked along the edge of the gulch to the point, where I can look out across a wide embayment toward the lighthouse.  The sky to the east was barely blushing with sunrise, but the moon lit up the land enough to see my way down the path.  On the moonlit water’s surface I could make out the dark lines of swells arcing into Lighthouse Bay.  My friend Ralph, a surfer, would say “Lighthouse is going off.”  The beam swept across the water, catching salt spray, so it looked like smoke was drifting past the lighthouse.  By the time I got back to the house, the sun was up, Craig was brewing tea, and we decided to hike down into the gulch to watch the waves before holing up in our offices for the morning, to work.  Skidding in sandals down the dry duff under the ironwood trees, holding onto branches, we found ourselves in shadow at the bottom, so we climbed up the rocky headland, where the first sunlight already balmed the lava rocks with warmth.  Besides, it’s the best place to watch big swells.  The headland is cantilevered out just enough over the water so you can look down upon the tops of waves curling in, see that extraordinary Coke bottle green color, the building, then the pour of it into a maelstrom of white chaos.  We crept close to the edge to look down upon the waves, then climbed higher to get a better view of the whitewater churning and backwashing and whirlpooling in the cove.  Beat sea until stiff peaks form, the recipe said, obviously.  From each vantage the waves and their aftermath took on a different aspect.  Depending on what I stared at, I could feel frightened, dizzy, ecstatic, or overwhelmed, or all at once, or nothing, indifferent.  Maybe those waves weren’t as big as I’d hoped.  But I felt all those things, and then, after a few good sets, we turned to go, time to get to work.

Back at home, a friend called to tell me about what sounded like an incredible gathering of women I hadn’t been invited to.  It had happened the night before.  And the morning was revised in an instant.  I submerged into a new version of the day.  I sat on my meditation cushion, and it was very much like standing on the headland, with every option of emotion available to me.  I felt eight years old, then 48 years old, then no age at all.  As the yoga teacher said last night, in the wash of emotions there was nothing to do, nowhere to go.  Just breathe.

Last night in yoga, as I stood in mountain pose at the beginning of class, after a particularly busy day, a day in which I was pulled in all directions at once, a day in which I moved in all those directions in turn, I melted with relief at last into quiet, standing there, my arms at my sides, listening to the yoga teacher’s deep voice.  Stand completely still.  And out of nowhere, a question arose in my mind.  What is cancer, anyway?  And it wasn’t a question of biology the unbidden voice in my mind was asking.  It wasn’t a question of genetics or physical reason.  If there’s any purpose to this blog, it’s to discover the answer to that question.  It’s to discover it day by day, as the nature of cancer and its echoes and reverberations in my life are constantly revised.  Cancer is today about seeing things from unexpected angles.

In my morning meditation reading, from the Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo writes of finding new points of entry for the mind.  Over and over again I stand in the same spot, looking down at the waves rolling in.  When that old way is barred, when a particular way is barred to me, a gathering of women to which I wasn’t invited, let’s say, leading to the same old emotional reactions as I experienced in childhood, the reading suggests I continue walking along the edge of that barrier, looking for an opening that’s not in view.  To see the waves from another angle.  Cancer can be looked at as a thief.  Old points of entry, physically, psychologically, spiritually, are certainly barricaded after a cancer diagnosis, as though an avalanche has closed the opening to a cave you once safely hid inside.  Where to go now?  Dig through the rubble to get back in?

What is cancer?  It’s also thoughts run wild, fears run wild, emotions run wild, roughshod and rampant.  The friend who told me about the party also told me that many of those who attended were friends with a woman who was diagnosed with metastatic cancer last year, about the time I was going through radiation.  She is a young woman with two little girls, and she is dying.  Before her illness, this young woman was a yogi, athletic, healthy, doing everything “right.”  And the young women at the party felt shaken and afraid.  How could it happen to someone like that?  If it could happen to her, why not them?  It flies in the face of “alternative” notions, those destructive cancerous ideas that if we’re healed enough, evolved enough, organic enough, we won’t get cancer.  That there is a kind of cancer personality.  That attitude is everything.  That we have control.  But I believe that’s all horse shit.  Cancer doesn’t care.  To me, those ideas are as false and harmful as the belief in a punishing, vengeful god, that cancer or other calamity is punishment for bad behavior.  What kind of spiritual belief system would encourage a young dying woman to think somehow she didn’t adequately heal herself, do enough, to prevent her cancer from coming back?  I reject that particular version of god/goddess/great spirit/oneness/om; I’m an atheist to his/her/its belief system.  But I hear it all of the time.  That certain “bad” behaviors or lifestyles or thought patterns will lead inevitably to cancer, or that certain righteous people will certainly beat it.  Cancer doesn’t give a shit.  It’s amoral, atheistic, and a-compassionate. 

That kind of thinking is just a wall.  And I've walked into that wall as much as anyone else, despite my proclamations.  I’m like someone who claims to be purely logical, but crosses the street to avoid a black cat.  I have to creep along that wall, feeling my way, and it’s dark; there is no moon to light up the path, no lighthouse beam.  My fingers work along the stones in the wall, looking for a chink, a crack, a tiny opening, light or a breeze coming through.  What is cancer?  The wall is cancer.  The mind can collide with cancer, take on the characteristics of the disease, obsessive, its range of vision narrowed.  And no matter the prognosis or course of someone's disease, no matter its cure or remission or progression, if it "wins" or "loses" the "battle," it’s that opening the mind slips through, followed by the heart, the spirit, that’s beyond any idea or definition of cancer, any belief, any physical reality of cancer.  It’s where cancer cannot go.  It’s a cancer-free zone.  It’s the opening, the new point of entry, the new vantage and perspective: that’s what survival is all about:  a pilgrimage to that place.  It’s not about survival of the body.  That’s ultimately a static notion.  No body survives in the end. 

"That's how the light gets in," says Leonard Cohen, about the fact that there's a "crack in everything."  There's a fault-line in any story the mind invents, any belief system, any definition of cancer or healing or survival.  At least in my world.  So it's constantly reworked, revised, this enterprise of finding the meaning of things.  It's a constant walk in moonlight searching for another perspective from which to regard and respond to incoming waves, continually changing shape and direction.  A chance to see again.  To see another way.