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.