Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dispatch from 35,000 Feet

From hammock to seat 15B, at 35,000 feet, somewhere over the Pacific, Craig beside me, singing in my ear:  “Don’t worry be happy.”  Saying I should listen to the song continuously while flying.  The sky blue above, an enormous froth of cloud below, stretching to the horizon.  The plane jerking and rumbling on minor turbulence, which doesn’t feel much different than the drive down the dirt road to the land in Hawaii in a pickup.

So what if I attained freedom from fear in corpse pose last night, and then in the hammock watching Jupiter and Venus?  In upright pose in the middle seat on the airplane, it’s the real thing, ground-truth to all of my enlightening thinking.  Here it is, under my breast bone, the familiar fear.  We pass, jiggling, over layers of cloud, openings, patches of blue ocean, like leads in pack ice.   I pinch the fleshy part of my hand, between thumb and index finger bones, the way a friend taught me, to relieve panic.  I tap my fingers on opposite shoulders, another trick.  I practice yogic breathing.  I practice leaving my body, staring at a rift in the clouds until I’m lost in it, mesmerized, hypnotized, but by the jet’s sudden bucking, I’m yanked back into my rabbit-hearted body.  My brain gets so addled, I can’t even read.  So I thought of another idea.  I remembered how scared I was a year ago at my first follow-up mammogram appointment in Boston, sitting in the waiting room in a hospital johnny, called back again and again for more views, for an ultrasound, until finally the thing in my remaining breast was identified as a simple fibroadenoma, benign.  I blogged my way through the waiting, describing every detail, the women waiting with me, even the magazines on the table.  As I kept the words going, a part of my brain was unable to latch onto the undercurrent of fear running there non-stop.

“Pretty good bumps” the flight attendant now says, “keep your children fastened in their seatbelts, stay seated,” while they walk around collecting trash, which I find reassuring.  All must be well if the flight attendants are still allowed to pour wine into glasses held precariously above laps.  The plane now lurching, shaking a bit, tilting slightly side to side, riding the turbulent air like a skiff on top of a wind-chop, tooth-rattling, but not scary on a skiff, nothing on a bumpy road in a truck, but 35,000 feet up, my body says “not okay”.  I breathe, I try to move my body with the movement of the air, try not to resist, watch the cloudscape change, get flatter, more distant, far below, more like lumpy pancake batter.  I love the people who continue to read (like Craig), absorbed in their books, not in the grip of what’s gripping me.  A flight attendant glides by, one hand brushing along the overhead bins, her sleeve fallen back to reveal a big sparkly gaudy crystal bauble bracelet on her right wrist.  As though she’s calmed the air with her sweep, the ride smooths, I take a deep slow breath.

When I finally went to bed last night it was past midnight, but I couldn’t sleep.  A part of me that resisted the day ending stayed turned on.   That anticipation of transition energy jittering through my body.  And the particular fear-of-the-moment that arose in that insomniac netherworld was the fear of cancer coming back, that one.  I awakened the sleeping dragon by writing it out in last night’s post.  Turn it over, I told myself, again and again, out of my hands, and when I finally slept, I dreamed I was back in yoga class, in corpse pose, so relaxed, I fell asleep.  When I awoke (in the dream), the room was dim and silent, and I realized all of us in the class had fallen asleep, Bobby the instructor too, and it was morning.  We’d fallen asleep together, and slept through the night, each of us on our little mat.  It was a dream but at the same time a real thing that happened, more like memory than dream.  I want to believe we met somewhere between worlds last night, in that place beyond worry or fear.

In the morning, the day after Equinox, I sat down one last time at the tiny altar in front of the Japanese screen, lit two candles and a stub of incense, picked up my journal and pen.  Picked scrap paper out of the wastebasket to write my worries, tossed each worry into the wooden bowl holding the spent matches and incense ash.  Then walked with the bowl and a matchbook to the look-out point above the gulch, me and the dog, like any other morning, he brandishing a stick, whacking me in the leg as he ran by, trying to get me to play keep-away.  His big goofy open-mouthed, stick between teeth, cock-eyed smile.  We stopped at the bluff top, where there’s a flat rock I sit on to check out the swells rolling into the little cove.  The air was still, finally, after days of intense trade winds, a little hazy from volcanic ash.  I lit a match and burned the scraps. “Troubles fly away,” I thought to myself.  “Worries, fly.” 

Clearly it’s not magic formula I think, as I look out the window only to be confronted by a big bright ash-colored blank.  We’re flying through cloud.  How did that happen?  But in this vapor-world, it’s a little calmer.  And DING, the fasten seatbelt sign just turned off.  Just a bit of jostling to keep the water in the bottle swaying.  Lots of people springing from their seats to walk around.  Maybe this is my sanga today.  Maybe my sanga just changes face, is now around me on this plane, fellow practitioners, each in our separate seats but being carried along, for four and a half hours, through the same air currents.  Now clouds reappear below us, their folds and bulges and wisps and shadows again apparent.  Bumps again, everyone jigling.  A pregnant woman standing, swaying from one foot to the other, ignoring the DING of the seat belt sign again coming on.  Now bigger bumps, like going airborne for a second, like a fat puffin trying to take off from the water after eating too many sand lance, flapping frantically, belly bouncing, bounce, bounce, bounce, and lift-off.  I write, the plane moves, and suddenly my brain lets go its hold, its fear, following instead the flow of words.  Troubles fly away.  Worries fly.  If only for a moment.  And for that solitary moment of freedom amid turbulence, I’m satisfied.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Remember it's a Practice

It's the Equinox, the earth poised between seasons, the pause between breaths, winter and spring, darkness and light.  I'm paused too, well, pretending to be.  Pretending it's possible.  It's 11 pm on my last night in Hawaii.  Craig's asleep, and I should be too, but I can't bring myself to end the day yet.  Weeks of pining for home in Alaska, and today I found myself digging my heels in against the flow of hours, the track of the sun across the sky, and now, the track of Jupiter and Venus, the bright planets that have been companions this last two weeks.  Back when I used to do orca research from a field camp on an island in Prince William Sound, I'd have a day like this:  the day before leaving the Sound, and I'd be at Whale Camp packing up the wall tent home I'd occupied for four months.  I remember the sensation that the tide had just stopped.  All day, the water would seem to stay at the same level, the sun would barely move.  Only I'd be moving, laying the wall tent out on the beach to dry, packing up kitchen supplies and storing them in the cache, and then, when it did get dark, lying on the beach in my sleeping bag, listening to waves lick the shoreline, and night birds, oystercatchers, gulls, maybe an otter crunching on a clam.  Days like that exist in a kind of eternal present tense; you remember them forever because you slowed the moments down and they imprinted themselves in your brain, in your heart.

That's why I'm lying in the hammock on the deck in the dark writing this, even though little moths are landing all over my bare legs.  I'm trying to eke a few more moments out of this day, stretch it a bit longer.  I'm listening to the churn of waves below the cliffs, the night insects, an occasional gecko clacking in the eaves, and one humpback whale breaching.

Earlier this evening, it was my last yoga class at the little studio in Kapaau, with my yoga sanga, people I barely know outside that time and space, but feel close to nonetheless, sharing a practice, each in our own bodies and breaths, and yet side-by-side.  At the end of each class, after corpse pose meditation, my friend Bobby, the instructor, asks us to find a comfortable seated position, keeping our eyes closed.  Tonight, facing Kohala Mountain, we did what we do each class ending.  Bobby said, "Now let's take three more even breaths together."  And then the sound of the inhale, the pause, and the sound of the exhale, the pause.  I love that moment.  I inhabit every increment.  But it comes to a close, no matter how present I am.  "Move with your own breath; don't follow your neighbor; we're not a dance troupe," Bobby often says during class, but in those three breaths we finally come together, and then it's "thank you for coming, namaste," and we're separate again, rolling up our mats.  Another thing he says a lot:  "Remember it's a practice."  And "You're stronger than you think you are."  We walk out into the night, into the continuous yoga of living.

I wrote in the last post about worry, and it's still on my mind.  Because it's a practice; one moment of insight's followed by another moment of bafflement.  Lying in corpse pose tonight, I practiced letting go of worry in the manner my counselor suggested.  Turning it over to spirit, whatever it is, those worries about things largely out of my control.  I'm a nervous flyer, and tomorrow, Craig and I are doing a lot of flying, and so lying there, I imagined turning it over, my fear; no matter how anxious I am when I walk on the airplane, once I'm aboard, it's out of my hands, and for just a moment, I experienced the most intense release,  the sensation of what it means to totally let go, put it in the hands of god, fate, spirit, whatever -- and to simply exist.  Like being one of Craig's kids, when they were little.  How they'd fall asleep anywhere, sitting up in cars, lying on airport floors, with a kind of faith I can't fathom.  Trusting utterly that they'd be carried along, taken care of.  It doesn't come naturally to me, the way it does to some of my friends who say when they get on an airplane, they realize they've relinquished all control over what will happen; they're in fate's hands, so they just relax into it.  And cancer is an even bigger challenge.  After all the vitamins, and Arimidex, and exercise, and anti-cancer diet, and yoga, and meditation, and no alcohol, and no scented cleaning products, and no sugar, and no dairy or meat, and now, fewer sunflower seeds (they have cadmium), it's out of my hands.  I don't have control, whether cancer will return.  For a moment, in corpse pose, I experienced what it would feel like to live that way.

It reminded me of something -- a momentary feeling from earlier in the day.  Sitting in front of my altar, doing my daily mediation, which now includes writing my worries on little scraps of paper, putting the papers in a bowl, and later burning the scraps, I decided to pick an Osho Zen card at random, wanting some sense of this next phase of my life.  "Inner Voice" was the card I picked.  The last paragraph of the text about this card said this:  "When you are cured, you throw away the meditation, you throw away the medicine.  Then you live as truth -- alive, radiant, contented, blissful, a song unto yourself."  For a split second, when I read those words "When you are cured," I fully believed them.  Breast cancer people say you must live "as if."  

As if the Equinox will go on and on, if I take one even breath after another.  If I don't let a single wave or breath go unheard, uncounted.  Radiant, contented, blissful, a song unto itself, played out over a day stretched to its breaking point, and yet, it is now 11:25, and in 35 minutes, it will be tomorrow.  And another day to practice.

And now, let's take three more even breaths together.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

From the Pupil of Worry's Blue Eye


At a friend’s the other night, I said, “Hey, have you seen ____ lately?  I’m worried about him.”

“You worry about people a lot, don’t you?” my friend asked.  “You know the energy of worry doesn’t help anything.”

You know how you can hear the same thing again and again and not HEAR it, and then, one day, you finally do.  It gets past all the walls and goes inside.  Like that proverbial one snowflake that finally breaks the branch.  Like that gust that gets past all the layers of windbreak trees to reach a sleeper’s ears.

Running through the cow pastures the next day, in my head, a litany of recent worries went like this:

For the other night outside the kava bar, our friends’ son looked awfully strung out.

For after those new yoga shoulder stretches, my scar tissue sure was tight.

For that boogie boarder paddling out alone into big waves at 5 pm.

For our friend Ralph not bouncing back from his hernia repair.

For the baby chicks eating the hen’s food; aren’t those grains of cracked corn too big?

For my step-daughter rafting down the Grand Canyon with a group of college friends.  For Granite, Horn, Hance, House Rock, Lava Falls, the big rapids.

For 894 emails in my inbox, how many overlooked.

For my incommunicado grad student.

For what if there’s a crab spider trapped in my hair?

(Worry doesn’t follow linear time, goes forward and back, asks equally of future and past, “what if,” and wonders “if only.”)

Today is windy, a sunny afternoon after a spate of unsettled weather here in Hawaii, days of gray scudding clouds, wind, big swells, nights of continuous lightning, rain deluges.  When a low-pressure front passes, high pressure builds behind it, and air moves, “filling in after a low,” people say.  Big trade winds clear out the cobwebs of the old storm.  If only they could do the same for me. 

Weather penetrates my skin’s thin hide.  I experience weather inside and out.  So the trade winds sweeping out the heavy skies feel almost violent to me today.  When they blow hard, I often wake in the night, filled with a fritzy energy, as though I’ve been hung out to dry inside-out on an ironwood limb – those ironwoods that grow along the edge of the gulch, planted by the sugar cane companies as wind breaks. The wind hisses through their long needles, rustles and bends low the bamboos, thrashes the milo and ko leaves, then, finally arrives at the house, whistling in the windows, entering my ears, my brain, registering as anxiety.  Translating as worry.  I get up, wander the house, find the quietest corner, read myself back to sleep.  I read to avoid confronting the worry, asking it:  “What are you trying to say?”  I read because worry sometimes is just too powerful a force for my limited meditation skills. 

I’m asking myself these days “What is worry, actually, what does it serve?”  And why am I, it seems, its willing servant?  When I think about it, I see that if I’m not worrying about this or that ache or wave of tiredness or sore muscle being recurrent breast cancer, I’m worrying about someone else.  Take Ralph, our dear friend here, who shares this piece of land with us.  He’s having a hell of a time recovering from his hernia operation.  He’s been laid up for days; very unlike Ralph.  It seems the anesthesia didn’t agree with him.  One evening, after visiting Ralph, I got sick to my stomach, had to quit washing dishes and lie down.  When Craig told Ralph about it, Ralph said, “She doesn’t have the flu; knowing Eva, she’s got sympathy pains.”

I’ve thought of myself as a sympathetic person, but my friend pointed out that worry is not sympathy, not compassion.  Worry is kind of selfish actually; it’s faithlessness, and also a twisted belief that somehow you might have some control.  Worrying about my breast lump two years ago did nothing to make it go away.  Five days a week of Bikram yoga for five weeks and tumeric and the surgeon’s scalpel – that reduced and then removed the lump.  Action.  Worry is usually when you can’t do a god damn thing.  Maybe that’s why it’s nocturnal.  It slips in the door when it’s too early or late to call anyone.  When everyone else in the hood is asleep. 

It’s no good to be a worrier here on earth.  Earth upon which nothing stays still – come to think of it, earth upon which nothing stays – and upon which life changes in the ordinary instant, as Joan Didion writes in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, about her husband’s sudden death.  This morning I read something about change, how it’s incessant; it’s the only thing we know for sure:  everything will change.  Still, sometimes change bowls us over.  The writer said that change is constant, a big wheel spinning, well-being giving way to angst giving way to joy giving way to sorrow giving way to elation giving way to disappointment on and on, and the best place to go is the center, the hub, where the turning is slowest.  Where you won’t get as nauseous.  If you cling to the wheel’s rim, worrying about what the next spin will bring, you’ll just get dizzy, then crushed.  And don’t ships head for the hurricane’s eye? 

Sometimes the wind – change – blows screaming by, and sometimes it tears a limb from the tree, uproots a whole tree from the ground.  That happened last night.  We found a big ironwood fallen across the path I walk on every morning.  Yesterday Craig, describing Hawaii’s weather, and why he loves it, said it’s constantly in flux; it changes fast. That’s what he likes about coastal Alaska too.  Weather is always arriving or departing.  How is it that something we love in nature we fear in our own lives? 

The other night, my friend Nancy and I hiked down into the gulch, despite a wind so strong, it reminded us of the Aleutians, the ocean torn ragged, long streaks of white on gray, fifteen foot waves, an almost cold wind, the sea bashing into the cove below us.  Slip-sliding the slope of dirt and ironwood needles, the dog running on ahead, we went, emerging from the trees onto the naupaka-covered flat above the shoreline, we were hit by salt spray.  Waves dashed themselves against the boulders, and the wind grabbed fistfuls of water, turned it into foam, and flung it at the headland.  A writhing pool of foam a few feet deep had formed under a rock wall.  It jiggled and swayed, fascinating, but it made me seasick to watch.  Foam flew at our faces like big splats like wet snow.  We climbed the spattered rock face up to the lookout on the headland, about twenty feet above the sea, watched truly bitchy-looking waves stalking in, twisting on themselves, pummeling the rocks, which turned them into huge sprays.  They reared up before us well above our heads.  When I left there, my face was gritty with salt.  My hair was caked with that sea-spit.

What’s my worry in the force of that?  That’s why mornings, my meditation, my prayers, pleadings that feel sometimes like so much salt spray splattered on a rock, dripping down, one fistful of foam  against a huge ocean, everything life can dish out.  We never see it coming, that wave.  Prayer is running for cover at the wheel’s hub.  Maybe it’s even worry transformed.  Prayer is what becomes of worry after its toxic energy is removed.  And I’m talking prayer of the faithless, prayer of the scared.  Or prayer of the unprepared.  Last night in the corpse pose, I thought of Ralph, saw him, skinny, weak, and was overcome.  Love.  I thought, suddenly.  Love is at the root of worry, not fear.  It gets back to love.

Sometimes I don’t duck or hide.  Sometimes I run into the wind, or climb the headland to let the wind try to knock me down.  A force that big tears the worry from my throat.  A force that big cuts me down to size.  I’d like to stop living the litany of worry.  I’m not sure how, yet.  There’s got to be a way to get into the center, to crouch there, watch change swirl around my head, around the heads of my loved ones.  Or to run toward it, into it, through.  Maybe prayer is pointless, doesn’t altar any outcome.  But right now, I spend a hell of a lot more time worrying than I do praying or running.  And if praying is possibly pointless, worry is certainly.  Utterly, certainly pointless.  Or is it?  Is it better to crawl back up a spoke to the wheel’s rim, to the brunt of the world, to feel change whipping by? To turn my ship back into the wind, against all intuition, the root of worry being fear?  Turn back into the waves and spray, having faith that there is a calm center to it all?  How to get there?  Watch the storm while crouched inside its blue eye.