Thursday, December 27, 2012

To Wield My Pen, and My Shovel

If healing is attempting to achieve (or reestablish) balance, then a writer's life is an ideal proving ground.  Because a fanatical writer would adopt a hunched posture, a bleary set of eyes, atrophied leg muscles, a deathly pallor, diminished social skills, a flat derriere, never leaving her desk.  The work of writing happens sitting down.  But the raw material of writing comes from bodily contact with the world.  I once read a wonderful biography of Georgia O'Keefe by Roxanne Robinson.  A journal entry or letter excerpt of O'Keefe's when she was young and just committing herself to her art impacted me greatly.  She wrote that at a certain point, she asked herself, with every choice she made (whether to go to a party or outing or engage in an activity) whether it would enhance or detract from her art.  If it detracted, she'd refuse it.  As a grad student, I tried that on for awhile.  But I realized quickly that a whole human being is more than an artist (or scientist, or farm laborer, or activist, or whatever our passion or vocation).  I still find the idea of it romantic.  In the abstract, it would be nice to be one of those single-minded artists believing so much in the importance of their work (and with a wife to deflect all input from the world so the great works can get written), that they live by O'Keefe's principles.  (We should build monuments to those (mostly) women, without whom, so much literature and artwork would never have been born).  But since breast cancer, my writing, healing and spiritual impulses have woven themselves more tightly together; I can't separate them.  Hence the prayer poems I've been writing, and hence this blog, and meditation, and walking, and observing the world, all of it feeding into the words that appear on a page or in a blog post.    

My love, Craig, accuses me of being an extremist and I admit he's right.  My current anti-cancer diet is evidence: no meat, no dairy, no sugar, no alcohol, no wheat.  But the holidays, and a social life in general, challenges such rigidities.  So when Don and Douglas invite us to dinner and make meatloaf, I eat it.  And when the Winters invite us to a traditional Swedish Christmas Eve dinner, I load my plate with sauerkraut, homemade potato and meat sausages, Swedish meatballs, and after, chocolate cake.  I share a macadamia nut martini with Craig, or a cosmo with my friend Ralph, who has Hep-C and also shouldn't drink.  I don't tell friends who invite me for dinner of my private cancer phobias around food.  My oncologist, Dr. S., once looked at me with dismay, I dare say sorrow, and asked, "So that means you don't treat yourself to an ice cream cone?"  I'm lucky, because I love healthy food, vegetables, fruit, salmon, rice, tofu, miso, brick-like bread, gritty crackers.  But I'm less obsessed about reading every study that suggests this or that food is good or bad in terms of cancer recurrence.  So this morning's poem reflects the balancing act, the life of the mind at play with the life of the body.  As I write these words, my love clears the ground for a flower garden outside my window with that big orange tractor that appears in the poem.  I have the opposite of Hemingway's dutiful wife: my man calls me to come outside and plant beets.  For his distracting and healing influence, I am grateful. (I am also grateful to poet Mary Ruefle's essay "Madness Rack and Honey" which also provided inspiration for this poem).

12.27.2012 Prayer

Distracted by laundry on the line, the physics of wind, which defines
whether a t-shirt wraps itself into a cocoon or flaps like an injured
bird or dangles. By him watering the eggplants. Distracted by his orange
tractor parked outside my window. By remembrance of snows past.
By a hand of bananas, half-green on the lanai. Distracted by the door
opening and him asking (not caring) where to plant fennel, where
to move the hotly inedible pepper tree. This is a prayer

for the war(p) between

a world lived on the page, unseen, in the mind, and another, of trade wind,
o-bar, pick-ax, bleach. And memory, singing in the choir loft, Our Lady
of Mr. Carmel, Lucille at the organ, the opening mouths and chords to Let
there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me constructing a poem of leaves
and debris, leaving the draft to cool, to load the dehydrator with bananas
and holes in the ground with cassava and pigeon pea. To wield my shovel.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Long Walk Through Rugged Terrain

For Christmas, my love made a booklet of the last year’s blog posts, and presented it to me.  The last entry in the booklet showed me in a hoarfrost meadow in Alaska, marking the two-year anniversary of my final radiation treatment.  So now I’m on the other side of those two years, and the other side of my winter transition to Hawaii, out of the hoarfrost and into the salt spray of a wild, windy, rocky coast.  And we are on the other side of the Mayan calendar’s end, the Solstice, winter holidays, preparing for the new year.  What does it mean?  A page in my calendar is titled “unexpected blessings,” and another speaks of “changes we may anticipate and those which may take us by surprise.”   

December this year was a month of shattering and sorrow on this earth, of storms and violence and loss.  Right now blizzards are bearing down on humans and animals and birds in the Midwest, pushing eastward.  Trees are crashing down.  Some people’s time on earth, ends abruptly, unexpectedly.  It’s been a month, too, of prayers and the painful, brutal first steps toward healing which always come, the days after the funeral, which don’t feel anything like relief.  Looking back at the last two years, I see that healing is like that.  It sounds nice, soft on the tongue, but in reality it’s lonely and harsh.  A healed tree displays its old wound.  It’s gnarled.  We gnarl our way out of grief, too.  

I talked to my cousin today.  In the last few years, she’s lost her only sibling, a brother, of a sudden heart attack, and her mother, of pancreatic cancer; she died in October. My cousin, a social worker, has taken care of others her whole adult life.  She never had kids, but helped raise her brother’s kids, who lived in the same house as she and her mother. She says she feels the love of her extended family.  But there is a process only she can go through and know, the process of coming to terms with being, as an old gospel song says, an “orphan girl” on this earth. There is no comfort anyone can offer for that.  The healing path is private, a long walk through rugged terrain, picking up along the way truths, like stones, which fill your backpack.  You emerge sun-and-wind-burnt, sinewy, weathered, stronger surely for all you’ve carried, maybe more self-contained.

Since December, I’ve begun a new daily writing practice, a series of prayer-poems.  In Alaska, in mid-winter, sunrise takes at least two hours.  The sun doesn’t crest the mountains across Kachemak Bay until after 10 am.  It’s the ideal time to write.  At first, I thought of those poems as separate from this blog, but today, I’m reminded to question holding back.  This is where I am now, and these prayer poems have something do with healing.  And they are an exploration of the thing we call “praying,” what it means to me.  And they represent the stones I gather in my backpack.  So I will begin to post them here.  The older I get, the more so many things seems beyond my control.  But I don’t wish to throw up my hands in despair, or become passive or indifferent.  Sometimes, the only gesture left to is prayer.  And to me, the poems that matter in my life are forms of prayer.  It’s what I do with my worries now.  And writing, poetry or prose, for me is the way I know to answer the question I started this post with:  “What does it mean?”

This is the first in the series:

11.28.2012 Prayer

Morning stacks up in parallels – inlet,
a flat-topped mountain, cloud-strips,

a black
of sand.  Light arrives in bands
at 9, hues like faint scent marks.  But this is still the hour

before I want there to be, before any prayer,
any please, gods:  just a mountain dusted in pale

blue talcum (as in light as powder).  That’s all.
That’s enough.          

Before any if, the wishful, before the arrival

of need or dread:  the letter, the word, even you,
away now
these many weeks (due on the noon plane),

and I, in solitude, this hour just prior,
(day as yet without
prognosis, anniversary of no one),

watch hues elide into blue
of a shadow I remember

pooled at the base of a tree
in deep winter, north of here,

memory I peel

off moonlit boreal snow and carefully
glue to this incipient
sky, line by line.

Lay it down like a wing-track.
Until a soul can’t hold 

any longer, and cracks, crying its tiny please,

between as-yet black branches
(the way bird song bursts, a prayer) don’t let anything
begin or be just yet.  Please day,
(as-yet black)

don’t arrive for me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Anniversary: After Two Healing Years, Two Kinds of Joy

On December 1, the two-year anniversary of my last radiation zap, I waited for my love to get off the plane in Homer.  Through the door walked Rosanna, who’d flown in from Anchorage, where she goes every week for her radiation treatments. The elation I felt for her being almost done (one week to go), at her telling me that she is suffering no ill effects, was intense, a body rush.  We hugged each other hard and rocked back and forth.  Sympathetic joy, it’s called.  When you experience another’s joy as your own.  

There is another kind of joy, one you get to experience alone.  That afternoon, after dropping Craig off at his office, I drove with my dog Gris-Gris to Beluga Lake for my first skate-ski of the winter.  There isn’t enough snow on the ground yet for skiing anywhere else.  Skiing’s fine by me, but in this case, skis were just a means to get to the other end of the lake faster.  It’s about a mile across the ice to a wild marshland inaccessible at any other time of year.  Weeks of cold dry weather have sublimated the snow covering the grasses, transforming it into a quilt of hoar frost.  Mounds of bowed-down grass are thick with a velour of crystals, some an inch or two long.  I left my skis at the end of the lake and Gris-Gris and I followed narrow ice channels through the marsh.  I was hoping to see the white owl again, the one that flew up from the ice last weekend, or one of the great gray owls my friends saw last winter, or a lynx or coyote out hunting the snowshoe hares whose tracks are everywhere on the ice.  I angled toward the nearby trees, found myself surrounded not by creatures, but by crystals. I was swishing knee deep in ice-bearded grass, millions and millions of miniature crystal ferns glinting in the low sunlight of midwinter.  I just wanted to lie down in it.  So I did, eating handfuls of hoarfrost off the collapsed grass around my face. It is fragile, collapses at the touch of a tongue, at a breath.  I ate it, and I let it cool my aching lower back, injured from last weekend’s ice-skating and too much sitting on a hard kitchen chair and working at the computer.  I looked at the sparkles of the grasses’ second skin.  I lay in a cradle/grave of hoar frost.  I stared up at the blue, blue sky. I swear I could see the sky streaming by in a river of molecules.  Let this earth become a heaven, writes Cyrus Cassells, “Down from the Houses of Magic.”  Sometimes you find that it is, that prayer is answered.  Heaven on earth, a house of magic, in the midst of everything chaotic, frightening, uncertain.  I don’t know if I can call it joy.  It is peace.  It is enough.  All concepts of forgiveness, guilt or fear vanish, dying into life in a meadow of hoar frost.