Thursday, June 6, 2013

When What I Feared Most Came to Pass

What happens when the thing you feared the most comes to pass?  What happens when the words are spoken again, and they mean something about you?  Malignancy.  Tumor marker.  Cancer.  Pathology?  I have lived long enough now to know that what our minds invent out of the tendrils of our fears -- these mental inventions bear little resemblance to reality.  I imagined falling to my knees.  I imagined myself curled up in terror and defeat.  I imagined my heart galloping.  I imagined a sense, even, of failure.

What I feared the most these last three years has come to pass.  I have cancer.  The how and where and why and what kind is still a mystery.  First, it seemed that Craig and I had been ushered onto a tiny boat, maybe the size of a rice cake, and pushed off shore.  A current soon carried us far into the fog.  We clung to each other.  We stared for hours into the fog, not seeking anything, not trying to see.  We drifted.  Jags of crying came on like squalls, passed, leaving us empty, dripping.  When what I feared the most came to pass, I felt oddly calm.  Everything slowed down.

When what I feared the most came to pass, in the hospital last Friday, suddenly shuttled for a chest x-ray, then a CT scan, then a procedure to draw three liters of beer-colored fluid from my lung lining, my friend Jo held my hand, locked eyes with mine.  She watched what I could not watch.  I gave over my body to the caring hands of people who let me know it pained them to cause me pain.  I gave myself over.

When what I feared most came to pass, I walked into my love's arms.  We wept.  We looked around and into our lives.  I thought, I have been given a heaven on earth.  I have lived in paradise.  There is nothing I want, nothing I would change, nowhere I would go.  My bucket list is for more of what I have.  It runneth over.

When what I feared most came to pass, I knelt in the garden and planted French tarragon, a perennial.  I tended the flower beds.  They look better than they have in years.  I look at them and see the promise of creation, of beauty.   I went to the greenhouse.  I watered the tomatoes.  I stared endlessly at the spring green of the leaves.  I listened to birds.  I watched clouds passing.  I looked over at my love.  "This is it," I said.  "This is all we have, right now, right here."  I knew everything I'd read of Buddhism to be absolutely true.  There is no future.  There is only this salad he has made for me, and these legs which took me on a long bike ride today, and these lungs filling with breath.  This is all I have.  I will not waste it with worry over tomorrow or regret over the past.

When what I feared most came to pass, my sister-in-law knelt down in her shower and prayed for me.  My sister said "I am ready; come here."  Craig said, "You are the love of my life."  My friends said "Let's play Scrabble."  My doctor said "I love you."  Another friend came and looked deeply into my eyes, until I could peel the layers of protection away.  When what I feared most came to pass, my oncologist told me it was a time for courage and hope.  All of my blessings, they rained down upon me.  They are raining down upon me right now.   

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Creation Story

This is a hard post to write.

On Friday, I found myself in the hospital with a collapsed lung, a pleural effusion -- the lining around my lungs filled with a beer-colored fluid, which a surgeon drew out with a long needle, filling three liter-sized glass jugs.  So much fluid, my liver, heart, trachea, all were shifted out of place.  This morning, a sample of that fluid was on an airplane, heading for a pathology lab in Anchorage.

And I am here, my feet in sealskin slippers on the ground.  Today I am waiting, once again waiting.  Today I am both afraid and numb.  And open, also, strangely so.  How does one wait?  Out of reflex, one calls it "limbo," this waiting, this not-knowing.  Should I watch movies?  Should I clean the refrigerator?  Should I prepare for the workshop I'm teaching at a conference in a couple weeks, as if, as if?  Should I answer emails?  Should I make phone calls?  Should I think positively or prepare for the worst?

A friend from Cape Cod sent me a note a couple days ago, and I just reread it.  She told me that she was thinking of me as she pulled "pottery from our earth pit this morning and some of it broke as always."  I saw a photograph of this earth pit, of small vessels being raked out of the ashes.  She wrote:

ash and clay
wind and fire
heart and rattle
a dirt womb
a belly bowl
a place for prayers and dreams
a place for offerings

She said she "gave thanks for all that survives this kind of heat, this kind of living down deep in the heart of the matter."

She wrote:
i send an ocean wave
a meandering path
a poppy's bright orange face blessing
And I realized that there was another way to wait.  That the word "limbo" is a short-cut, a cliche.  That whatever comes next in this day, in this week, in this moment, in this life, requires an act of imagination, of re-imagination.  It requires more than medicine, distraction, analysis, pathology, diagnosis, procedure, to-do list, platitude.  When there is nothing I can do, nothing to speed along an answer.  When there is no one who can divine my future or fate.  Then an act of imagination is required.  To imagine what I have never imagined before.  To create what I have never created. 
I want to dig myself a dirt womb.  I want tunnel down to the place of prayers, dreams, and offerings.  I will rake something out of the ashes of whatever comes next.  I will rename whatever this experience is and will be.  Whatever this experience is and will be, whatever this place is where I am waiting, and where I will be no longer waiting, it will not be called "cancerland."  It will be newborn, never before imagined or realized, mine and mine alone.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

In the Greenhouse

I am sitting in our greenhouse while a gentle rain falls outside.  I am sitting with the flowers I repotted today in the hanging baskets and window boxes that will decorate the deck, but which now are staying in here.  It’s been a cold spring.  It’s May 22, and there are no leaves yet on the birches.  The elderberry bushes at the edge of the forest and gooseberries in the orchard are the only things showing a little unfurling green.  But I am warm in this humid, light-filled, humus-smelling shelter, gravel beneath my feet, sitting in a canvas folding beach chair Craig just brought home for me from Ulmer’s Drug and Hardware.  I can hear birdsong.  It is all around, the birds really going at it, singing like there’s no tomorrow, building nests, chasing off intruders into their territories.  So much to do in the short sub-arctic summer, and they are doing it.  I’ve spent a lot of time here this last week.  It’s one of the places I’ve felt most at peace, besides the beach I walk to town sometimes, or the forest and swamp trails within a mile of my house.  I’m not what you’d call a meticulous gardener.  I’m more of a Latvian gardener in the style of some of my friends back in the old country.  My window boxes are made of scrap lumber, unvarnished.  The table holding the long boxes of nasturtiums is made of old gray plywood supported by three defunct tires. 


This afternoon, I picked up a book that I keep on the ledge of the greenhouse.  It’s a book by a poet who was a meticulous gardener, a New England gardener, and it’s his words that sent me back to the house to get my computer and to call Craig to ask him to pick me up a folding chair so I could write in the greenhouse.  The book is called The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden.  It’s by the poet Stanley Kunitz.  Yes, a century in the garden, for real.  He died at 101, and he wrote the book, with the help of a friend, at 100, at which point, he was still gardening (and writing poems).  The photos in the book show opulent gardens of his Provincetown, MA home, Victorian spill-over gardens of anemone, foxglove, bearded iris, things we can only dream of up here in the north.  And yet I do dream of them, and my plan this year is to consolidate my perennials into just a couple beds I can actually nurse along into exuberance.  Perhaps if I content myself with less, something opulent and lush will grow up in that more intimate space.  Nevertheless, I am comfortable in this rustic, non-opulent, funky greenhouse with its piles of pots, its rough-cut lumber beds of soil Craig and our friend David dug from under the elderberries.  They hauled the dirt from under the thicket in salvaged five-gallon pails I use for tomatoes, and I mixed that dirt with composted fish from a farm up the road and compost from our own heap and fish fertilizer.  Ragged old pieces of shade cloth keep the young plants warm at nights, as the temperature still dips down into the 30’s.  I’ve been calling this a recalcitrant spring, and in town you hear a lot of moaning.  When I consider the temperature in other parts of the country right now, I truly feel like I am orbiting some other, shyer sun.

Recalcitrant spring, recalcitrant body.  This has been a rough patch of life this last couple months.  I don’t want to belabor the physical body issues, but the short of it is that the malaise I wrote of in my last post was at last diagnosed as an Helicobacter pylori infection in my stomach, which has given me an ulcer and reflux and shortness of breath and other spooky symptoms.  I have felt, oddly, much like I did when undergoing chemotherapy nearly three years ago.  Then, as now, I could only eat certain foods, felt uncomfortable in my body much of the time, breathed hard after climbing a set of stairs.  My usual physical routines have been interrupted, and so I’ve had to slow down.  This has had its blessings, I admit.  Instead of running, I’ve been walking a lot with the dogs.  But the most calming, healing thing has been to come to the greenhouse, to tend to these plants.   It hasn’t been easy to keep my equilibrium, as the healing process is never linear, with its good days and bad days and frustrations and fears and hopes and let-downs.  And yet this morning, Craig reminded me to consider all that I do have, to be present with all that I can do, and so I have tried. 

I have avoided writing in this blog, as I’ve struggled to find the meaning in feeling so lousy for so long, and frankly, in not handling it with much aplomb or grace.  But something shifted in the greenhouse when I picked up the book by Stanley Kunitz and read this:  “There’s a conversation that keeps going on beyond the human level, in many ways, beyond language, extending into the atmosphere itself.  Weather is a form of communication.  There is an exchange between the self and the atmosphere that sets the tone for an entire day.  The changeability, its overwhelming range of possibilities, exercises a more defined influence on human moods than perhaps anything.”  In the greenhouse, that conversation is plain to me.  It is no longer the conversation with the body, and that is a relief right now.  The conversation manifests as the rhythm of the rain, which waxes and wanes, and as bird-spats, the robins, the fox sparrows, the varied thrushes, and humidity and the smell of damp, rich soil.  No matter what is happening in my body, I can be part of that conversation, an eavesdropper or a participant.  And more than that, I can listen for what it might mean, what I can learn.

This is the paragraph in the book that truly turned me back to this writing, to writing in this greenhouse where I am not only having a conversation with the page, with the imagined reader, but with everything going on outside me, even with the plane that just took off and headed to Anchorage.  Wise 100-year old Stanley wrote:  “The storm we had the other day was rather spectacular; I felt it was somehow a message.  It seemed so threatening at first, and then suddenly it was just a little downpour.  And then it dissolved into a quite peaceful late afternoon.  I interpret it positively.  I had felt a sense of foreboding, certainly for the last few months, and psychologically this seemed to say, ‘Stop thinking negatively about whatever’s happening now.  Find out what you can do, and do it.’”

What a relief to read those words, to know that another human being had felt “a sense of foreboding, certainly for the last few months,” and yet had continued to tend his garden and write his poems.  This is the (one of the) lesson(s) of illness and of healing.  No matter what ails, no matter how small the range of possibilities, you “find out what you can do, and do it.”  During chemo, on good days, I worked with my sister in her garden.  On bad days, I circumabulated her lawn.  On really bad days, I admit, I sat on the couch with my niece and watched Say Yes to the Dress, reality TV at its horrid best.  Now, as then, true solace isn’t found inside the house, and God knows it’s not found on the Internet, Googling symptoms, anti-biotic failure rates, and side-effects.  Right now, all of those things I’ve accumulated in this life, the furniture, the sentimental rocks, my mother’s tea cups, the rows and rows of books, the knowledge, the clothes, the telephone, they feel a world away, even though they are just up the driveway.  All I need is this cheap canvas chair, the songs of these birds, this shelter from the rain, the life of these plants I’ve tended from seeds, the dirt under my fingernails, and this one book open in my lap.  Soon I will walk out this door, and head for the kitchen to make dinner and to take my nightly medicine that is doing its good work to clear the nasty bug out of my gut.  But as I learned during cancer treatment, there are many kinds of medicine, and a pill can’t heal the whole person.  The path to healing is a labyrinth.  The medicine of the greenhouse can’t heal an H. pylori infection just as a garden can’t cure cancer, but it can heal the mind’s equally painful malaise.  It can suggest an alternative to self-pity, to despair for what’s been (temporarily) taken away.  “We have storms and stresses and positive indications and negative indications that affect us every day.  Each of us is a very sensitive keyboard.”  So sensitive that a molecule of compost scent can balm the spirit, or a harsh word can untune the soul.

I place the book back on the sill, take one last look at the cover image, Stanley Kunitz in a blue and black plaid flannel shirt and tan corduroy pants leaning over to inspect some ferns and petunias.  I take one last deep breath of earth-musk.  Tune in one last time to the conversation of birds, and fold up my chair for tomorrow. 


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fear is a Smokescreen

I think I am struggling with fear, but I am not.  I am struggling with something else.  Fear is a smokescreen.  These last three weeks, worried about an ache in my side, I’ve been dragged down by the feet into a vaporous place. Unfocused. Numb. Yet scared.  All the logic, self-talk, and advice can’t bump me up and out of this place.  It’s not that simple.  It takes more work, digging, clawing my way, not out, but deeper in.  I am trying to see beyond the smoke.  My brother-in-law last night said, “When you are afraid, go into your fear, go deeper, and it will dissipate.”    

Today I am on another airplane.  I’m on my way home after five days in Encinitas.  Craig and I flew down for a poetry reading in LA, and to visit family.  Every day, I ran or walked, sometimes in sun, sometimes under low clouds.  I was drawn to the beach, a stretch of flat sand tracked by gulls, whimbrels, sanderlings and their kin.  A low-sloping beach sheened by the vitreous leavings of waves.  A flat horizon, next landfall, Hawaii.  Surfers in black wetsuits floating like seals, waiting for swells, which crested Coke-bottle green, shadows of kelp backlit for a moment before breakage.  On the beach, displaced bull kelp lay in heaps, coils, spirals, snakes.  Human beings walked, ran, biked, or sat with eyes closed, meditating.  I like to be alone among humans. It is private and soothing to be a stranger, taking off my shoes, running along the waterline, waves sloshing against my ankles and pulling back, dizzying me, no one saying hello.   The way back to my family’s house took me up a steep hill, alongside a small park with trees and benches.  There I’d pause, winded from the climb.  I’d sit under a flowering tree, alone there with my fear.  The fear which had run with me like a companion, keeping up its end of a conversation in my head, my mind scrolling through the possibilities:  Muscle pull?  Pleurisy?  Cancer recurrence?  Yesterday, sitting there, I tried to brush the smokescreen away.  If cancer has come back, so what?  What good will my fear have done?  I wanted to cry for every unappreciated moment of feeling completely strong and healthy in my body these last three years.  Had I wasted time?  Was my body speaking to me, warning me, asking something of me?  Or simply uttering a cry to itself?  What if the voice of my body, this ache, that pain, is not meant to be heeded at all?  What if it’s not telling me anything?  And if cancer comes back, so what?  That’s the question that circled back, again and again.  In that question, there seems to be some secret, some key to my sense of being lost, isolated, these last three weeks.  Or some key to this whole dilemma of life – After? With? – breast cancer.  I don’t know my fate.     

On the plane, over the serrated, snow-striated mountains of British Columbia, I finish reading Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds:  Fifty-Four Variations on Voice.  At the end of this book-length essay, she writes of her diagnosis of a cavernous hemangioma, a tangle of vessels in the part of her brain called Wernicke’s, “the home of language comprehensions, where metaphor and the patterned mind live.”  She had a bleed there, with transient symptoms.  It could bleed again, but likely not.  She was offered two choices:  surgery or “wait and watch.”  A doctor asked her “How well do you live with uncertainty?”

I have written recently that I do no live well with uncertainty.  Or, more accurately, lately, I have not been living well with uncertainty.  My fears and untamed thoughts have been living my life for me.  Williams quotes from Loren Eiseley’s essay “The Judgment of Birds” near the end of her book.  He describes once waking in the woods to terrible cries.  A raven has grabbed a nestling, and the parent birds were circling and shrieking. “The sleek black monster was indifferent to them.  He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still.”  And then other birds arrived and began to sing.  “And he, the murderer, sat on there, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.”  What a perfect description of cancer this is.  Or the grim, feathered reaper in general.  Eiseley writes, of the other birds singing, that it was a judgment:  “It was the judgment of life against death.”  Song sparrows arrived one by one and began to sing.  “They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.  They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven.  In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.”

How can one not think of the deaths and maimings in Boston, reading these sentences?  The monster, and the singers – all those who offered comfort.

“To be numb to the world is another form of suicide,” Williams writes.  I have been numb.  This smokescreen is a manifestation of numbness, of sleep-walking through my life.  Fear hides this truth from me.  Fear is a distraction from more important questions, like another one Williams asks: “How do we move beyond our own diagnosis?”  I have not moved beyond my diagnosis.  I don’t know how to move beyond it, but I know I must try harder.  I am being hard on myself, I know.  My writing has been a process to trying to plow forward, to feel my way, with my eyes closed.  I am feeling my way into uncertainty.

Williams writes “This vascular malformation could bleed and burst.  Or I can simply go on living, appreciating my condition as a vulnerable human being in a vulnerable world . . . “  A vulnerable world.  That is our birthright.  But, Williams writes, “there are so many ways to change the sentences we have been given.”

How do I change the sentences I have been given?  The sentences of breast cancer?  And all of my other sentences, the ones I drag behind me, from nearly fifty years of living?  In a month I’ll be fifty.  How shall I live?  That is the question behind fear’s smokescreen.  Not “Will I die?”  Not “What is wrong with me?”  Not “What is my prognosis?”  Not “What are my chances?”  Not “How much time?”

The answer to the question “Have I wasted time?” is yes.  I have woken morning after morning failing to ask the most important question.  Not “How do I feel?”  But “How shall I live?  How shall I live today?”  What will I do with it, this ribald ruby sunrise, or this subtle dove-gray one, handed to me on a platter called Kachemak Bay, or the Pacific, hidden by a snow squall, or gleaming under moonlight, or shattering in sun?  What will I do with it?  Don’t let me waste it.

Terry Tempest Williams’ mother wrote this:  “There are two important days in a woman’s life: the day she is born and the day she finds out why.”

I want to find out why.  Why and why and why, or die trying.  Today, I know why I am writing this blog.  It is not to chart anything.  It is not to instruct or to impart.  It is to say to some stranger, like those humans I passed on my beach runs,  “You are not alone.”  But more importantly, it is to ask myself, when fear comes, and when it doesn’t, the question “How shall I live?”  And to hold myself accountable to the answer.   

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Loathing Fear and Loving Fried Turnip Cakes

I just learned something truly weird.  The day I wrote my last post, according to Facebook, was World Cancer Day.  No wonder the weather sucked.  No wonder the woman fitting me for new glasses that morning asked me if I was "in remission."  (She had access to my medical questionnaire).  No wonder I read an essay in the LA Times about the wrong things to say to people with serious illnesses.  "Are you in remission?" was not on that list, but having been asked the question numerous times, I'd say it's on my list of questions not to ask people who've gone through cancer treatment.  First off, what motivates a person asking this question?  And what if the answer is "No?"  How would a stranger or casual acquaintance react?  "No, it's not in remission.  As a matter of fact, I'm dying of cancer.  Now can I please try on these cool frames?"

My oncologist never uttered the word "remission" in all of our conversations.  The only time he uttered a variant of the word "cure," (as in, "when we use chemotherapy with curative intent") I asked him to repeat what he'd said.  He looked at me, surprised.  "Of course that's what we're doing," he said.  I burst into tears.  Going through treatment I barely looked ahead more than a day.  "Just tell me what to do and I'll do it" was my unarticulated motto as I put my head down and bore my way forward, like a Clydesdale yoked to a massive pile of logs.  Because most oncologists don't use the word "cure."  I never heard the word "prognosis" used by a doctor either, but near-strangers have asked asked me for mine.  What do I tell them?  What happens to breast cancer's tiniest traces after treatment has had its way is anyone's guess.  Perhaps (and how we pray) the onslaught destroyed every last mutant cell.  Perhaps dormant cells remain, asleep, never to awaken (a second best outcome).  Perhaps they lodge in the lung, in a bone, and incubate.  There's no test to tell you either way.  The oncologist says, "If you feel healthy, then likely you are."  The numbers you read, the survival statistics, lump every type of breast cancer together, and reflect the data for five years post-diagnosis.  "You have to learn to live with uncertainty," the doctors and social workers tell you.

So when a person asks about prognosis, or remission, what happens to the person who's had breast cancer is a drop.  The way a raft drops down a lip into a big rapid.  You find yourself in a recirculating hole, which roils with all you don't know about "your" cancer.  When a person asks those things, uncertainty rears up like a standing wave.  You have choices.  Is it an opportunity to educate the person about breast cancer biology?  To draw a boundary?  To ask the questioner to question her own intentions?  My counselor suggested I respond this way:  "Why are you asking me that?"

When I sat down in front of the counter with the round mirror in its silver frame, the glasses frames I'd picked out arranged front of me, and a woman I'd just met asked, suddenly:  "Are you in remission?" the ordinary act of picking out new glasses pretty much shattered in my lap.  I was back in Cancerland.      

The intentions behind World Cancer Day and the question "Are you in remission" are caring, not ill-willed.  Still, both things rub me the wrong way.  But it's kind of fun to imagine a World Cancer Day parade.  With bagpipes.  And baton-twirlers.  And ginger candies and wigs flung from various cancer floats, the pancreatic, the lung, the blood, the breast.

When I told Craig about the woman at the eye doctor's, he suggested this rejoinder:  "Do you know how much time you've got left?"  Sometimes, I feel terribly isolated with my fears.  Today, in a car with five others, I thought to myself:  "I'm the only one here who's had cancer."  I allowed myself to indulge in a little "why me"-ing.  This morning too, taking a run, I stopped in a little park, sat down, and had myself a self-pity party.  I struggle mightily with fear, and it comes in spasms.  Long respites -- months even -- of calm are interrupted my a few weeks of devil possession.  "Cancer wrecked my life," I thought, sitting there, hunched on the park bench.  "I'm not cut out to be a cancer survivor.  I can't do it."  I thought of what a guy at the Homer airport said to Craig when he was about to fly out to Boston three years ago to help me get through surgery.  The guy's wife had had cancer.  He told Craig the key was positive attitude.  "I suck at positive thinking," I snuffled.  And then I jogged back home and took a shower.  Later, I ate dim sum with those five people who'd been in the car with me, those five non-cancer survivors.   But it's a fact that none of us sitting around that round table in the Chinese restaurant, stabbing fried turnip cakes and jellyfish with our chopsticks -- and none of you -- knows how much time we have left.  If we're born into this life, the prognosis is not good.

There are other ways to look at the word remission.  In physics, it is the scattering of light by a material.  The Latin remissionem is "relaxation, a sending back."  Remittere is to "slacken, let go, abate." How I want, in those moments of intense fear, to slacken, relax, to send it back.  When a person has had cancer, a stranger meeting her eye is perhaps is in the path of scattering light.  Are you in remission?  Because I, too, am alive here on earth, and thus, afraid.  None of us is alone in this.  We are all light, scattering, as we reach our chopsticks for another curl of squid.       

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

To Limbo and Back: A Gratitude

A wintry April day, mean north wind sledding down the bluff, hurling tiny snow grains sideways at my face as I walk from the eye doctor’s to the coffee shop.  Now, ensconced at a corner table with a warm cup of chai, I vow to finally write a blog post, long overdue.  I’m cozy here, in wool pants, a sweater, until one of the baristas strides over and opens the window beside me.   The kitchen must be hot.  A potted tree now sways and shudders its leafy branches in the breeze.  A newspaper flutters to the floor; the wind turns the pages of a magazine, and now, delicate clouds of snow stream in, like talcum from a powder puff (that’s been stored in a freezer).

Today is the two-year anniversary of my friend Lauren’s second cancer diagnosis.  Two years ago, we were both getting mammograms on the same day, mine “routine,” hers because she’d found a lump above her remaining breast.  (You can look back to my post around two years ago to see what “routine” was like for me).    Last week was the three-year anniversary of my diagnosis.  When Lauren and I  talked on the phone the other day, she told me that she intended to mark this anniversary consciously, to celebrate her recovery.  When I asked if she’d decided on a plan, she said she hadn’t yet.  This morning, when I opened up my email, I saw that she’d settled, in part, on marking the day with gratitude.  I was one of many recipients of Lauren’s email message, thanking her posse of friends and healers for supporting her through the ordeal of treatment, and the recovery after.  Does recovery ever stop?  As my own posse can attest, it doesn’t, at least after three years.  Another concurrent anniversary, March 24, suggests recovery takes way longer.  Twenty-four years ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground, poisoning Prince William Sound and the coast all the way to the end of the Alaska Peninsula, where the Aleutian Islands begin.  Anyone who lived through the spill can attest that recovery occurs on its own time schedule, not budged by our human wishes.  Ask the orcas.  Ask the sea otters and marbled murrelets.  Ask the herring.  Ask the fisher-folk and the beach gravel.  Whenever I see one of those laden crude oil tankers skulking its slow way down Hinchinbrook Entrance, flanked by glaring yellow tug escorts, the shadow the spill falls on me.  Perhaps I expect too much of myself, in terms of recovery.

Lauren and I had one of our long talks the other day on the phone.  I don’t have a cancer survivor support group here in this small town.  I have Lauren.  She has me.  And yet, when we go through what I can only describe as spasms of fear, which pass through from time to time like earthquake aftershocks, we don’t call each other.  We think about calling.  But we don’t pick up the phone.  We hold our fear close.  We don’t want to scare each other.  If I told her about my side-pain, told her I feared it was cancer in my liver or lung or ovary, would I trigger worry in her?  Add to her own cancer recurrence paranoia?  But I also don’t tell Craig about these fears.  I don’t tell a single friend.  The first person I tell, after working myself up into near-panic, is my sister.

So this is what’s been happening since my last blog post.  Not a respite, not a hiatus, not, no reason to post a blog because cancer’s not on my mind, but the opposite.  And it’s strange to admit that my own cancer anniversary did not register in my conscious mind until it was too late.  Too late to prepare, to anticipate trouble, much less celebrate or make a ritual.  That’s the rub.  When you prevent awareness from stirring up trouble, the subconscious steps in to stir up its own insidious, devilish brand.

Back east last month, after a plane flight, I woke one morning with a pain in my waist, under my right ribs.  When I took a deep breath, I felt a stab.  My doctor-sister felt the spot, said it was muscular, take Advil.  Being me, I didn’t.  I ran, did power yoga, thinking the pain would fade on its own.  But it didn’t.  By the time I got back to Alaska, it was waking me up at night.  And so, before I called my sister, I let cancer-terror take charge.  Jet-lagged from my travels, ungrounded from having been so far from home for three weeks, alone in the house without Craig (he was still in Hawii), I turned to the Internet, which for someone like me, should be nicknamed to Fast Road to Hell.  They call it searching.  And indeed it is, though it’s metaphysical.  Am I going to be okay?  Death, is that you?  It is not rational.  Searching may bring you to get in the car, but fear is what drives this road.  The verb for the road to hell is not “search,” but “google”.  I googled liver metastases.  Lung metastases.  I googled kidney cancer.  Pancreatic.  Ovarian.  And then the lesser cousins, taking side-roads, directed there by links and discussion boards.  Kidney stone.   Gall bladder disease.  Gastritis.  On the breast cancer chat rooms I recognized fellow travelers on the Road to Hell.  Women fearful of similar aches and pains.  The responding stories of speculating others.  Perhaps these places are a kind of limbo, where we, existing for the moment between life and death, between the land of the well and the land of the sick, wander, searching for reassurance, often getting the opposite.  With my Catholic upbringing, limbo always called up images of mist, like fogs creeping across the moors where King Lear raved in his final days.  In Cancerland’s online limbo, the mist is composed of fear.  And when you go there, you breathe it.  When you wander there, the mist obscures your vision.

Finally, I called my sister.  And she told me that I had to email my oncologist.  “Only he can reassure you,” she said.  And she was right.  He did.  And the pain faded away (with the help of a lot of Advil and no yoga or running).  But the night before I finally did call him, the night I realized it was the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, I broke down completely.  I woke up at 2 am, my side zinging.  I cried, then spasmed through one more google nightmare ride until 4 am.  In the morning, I sobbed in my friend Margaret’s kitchen.  I emailed my oncologist, and then I drove to a radio station to be interviewed about whales and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  After the interview, when I read my oncologist’s reply email (what you describe does not sound like cancer to me; most symptoms like yours turn out to be benign, and resolve on their own; treat the symptoms and wait it out), I cried again with relief.  And not just any relief.  With the big relief of every mammogram that is clear.  With every check-up in which I’m pronounced “the picture of health.”  A relief as deep as the plunge into hell had been.  I spent that afternoon at my friend Marybeth’s house.  Marybeth wrote a book about the oil spill.  The Heart of the Sound, it’s called.  In it, she grapples with the oil spill and the ending of her marriage.  Like me, like the Sound, she has never fully recovered from that spill.  And she never will.  But Marybeth knows something about healing.  About balming a wound.  She made me a sandwich, gave me Advil, brewed me a cup of tea, talked with me for hours, took me for a walk to a half-frozen stream where she’d seen a wolf.  She handed me a towel and opened the lid on her hot tub.  She and her husband took me to dinner.  And the next morning, I picked up Craig at the airport, and the pain in my side was a mere figment.

I’d like to be more poetic in this blog post, but it’s not a poetic day.  The sky is a dingy blank, the wind’s still damn cold, spring won’t come, and I can still feel a tiny twinge in my side if I sit too long in this chair.  The coffee shop is frenetic with conversation.  The Rasta-flag colored walls are too bright.  My cup of chai is empty.  But it’s a day for gratitude, so I’ll follow Lauren’s lead.  I’ll honor her anniversary, and my own, with this litany of names, those friends and family who got me through this latest spasm of fear, who got me out of hell and back into the land of the living.

Mara, Lauren, Margaret, Greta, Jo, Steve, Asia, Michael, Marybeth, Rick, Lowell, Craig, Erin, Judy.

Thank you.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Alaskan in Asja Land

My last evening on Cape Cod.  I'm sitting in the window of the coffee shop, watching the wind trouble the bare branches of oak trees and flap the awning and drive the low-flying cumulus.  The sun is low, blaring through blue clouds.  The rest of the sky is that pale blue, yes, of a robin's egg.  It's cold, maybe in the low 40's, but walking across the parking lot, I heard my first robin songs.  Winter's not letting go of the East, but I am, for another six months.

This afternoon, as I have every day I've been on the Cape, I visited my mother, who lives in a nursing home in Chatham.  She's 85, and she can't walk.  A brain aneurysm fourteen years ago ruined her leg, shattered her life, changed so much about her, but not some deeply essential poignant Asja-ness.  I almost said sweetness, but my mother is not always sweet.  Most of the time, she is.  But she is also sometimes agitated, sometimes confused, sometimes angry, sometimes impatient, sometimes sad.  My mother can't or won't do many things she used to do.  She no longer reads, or knits, or writes letters, or answers the phone.  And though she can't access all the emotions she once knew, she can't fake or hide the ones she has.  She is 100% authentic, 100% real.  When you are in the presence of such rawness, it's hard not to be real, too.

This afternoon, I breezed into her room, switched off the TV, filled the teapot, heated water, and plopped down in her wheelchair.  She watched me intently from her recliner.  After notating a birthday card from her to my nephew, and one to my stepson, I read to her from my book, telling her the story of a woman who disliked me intensely when I was young.  She listened.  She took it all in.  Sometimes, when she's experiencing a complicated emotional reaction, she struggles for words.  How could this be, she asked.  That is one way this woman is still 100% my mother.  A mother is someone who can't fathom how her child could be disliked.  Often I read to my mother, as she has always loved stories.  Sometimes we call friends and relatives.  Always I update her on goings-on at my sister's house, or in my family's life.  Often we look at photographs.  But it's been a long time since I've talked to my mother like that, telling her the whole story of this woman who disliked me, puzzling it out with her, processing it.  She listened, was 100% there.  And then.

She looked up suddenly at the clock on the wall, and visibly startled:  "It's 5 o'clock!" she exclaimed.

I startled too.  I'd been looking at her bedside clock, which hadn't been advanced at daylight savings.  I'd lost track of time, and all at once, it was time for me to head to the next town to pick up my niece from her cello lesson.  Now my mother was agitated.  "Are you okay Mom?"  I asked.

"Yes," she said, though she clutched one hand with the other, kept turning to look at the clock, fidgeting.

"What time do you eat dinner?"

"Five o'clock," she said.

"Don't worry, the aide won't forget you.  Has the aide ever forgotten you?"


"Do you want me to keep reading?"

"Yes." But as I started up, she kept fidgeting.  "No," she said.

I put the book down.  "Are you hungry Mom?"

"Yes," she said, her voice higher than normal.  Something rushed up through my body, wrapped hard around my heart.  I looked at my mother.  She was anxious for supper, for this steady ritual in her day.  She wanted to be on time.  She didn't want to be left behind.  I hesitated just a second before I responded to emotional flash-flood.  I grabbed her hand. 

"Mom.  I love you so much."  In that moment, I loved her with my entire body, a visceral, animal love.

She grabbed my hand, locked her eyes with mine.

"I love you too."

And then the aide arrived to take her to supper.  "See you tomorrow, Mom," I said.

What does this have to do with Cancerland?  Nothing.  A brief conversation with my sister the other day, about "survival rates," about so-called "cure rates," about late recurrences of breast cancer, threw me back into that realm again.  It's like a seizure in my life now.  Rare, but serious.  Cancerland:  that place where I sit in the same room with the word "cancer," befuddled, uncomprehending.  That place where cancer casts its shadow on me.  When I fall into that place, I start browsing the web for cancer news.  I reread the same statistics. Why?  Sometimes I reread the pathology report from my surgery, nearly three years old.  I wake up scared.  I worry about the ache in my side.  Am I living a cancer-inducing life?  Stressing out too much?

The thing about being with my mother now, and the thing about being with her as I went through cancer treatment, is that she does not live in Cancerland or Aneurysmland.  She lives in Asja-land, and it is immediate.  It is supper time.  Or it is time to drink tea and read a book.  Or watch birds at the window feeder.  In the presence of my mother, I have only one job, and that is to be fully present with her, to be fully alive in that small room.  To not hesitate even a moment before responding to the over-riding impulse of my heart.  To grab her hand.  To grab that living hand and hold it tight while I can.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tree-Shaped Soul Standing in the Rain

Sitting at my brother’s kitchen island typing on my computer.  He is sitting on the other end, typing on his, preparing for a hearing (he’s a lawyer).  We are eating toast, drinking coffee.  Outside, a steady but gentle rain drizzles down, almost invisible.  It looks more like static than rain, like floaters streaming across the eye surfaces.  The branchlets of the dogwood tree in his front yard, tinged maroon, hold hundreds of drops and droplets of water, which glint in the flat light.  Each represents the accumulation of dozens of raining-down almost formless particles.  Every once in a while a fattened drop falls off to earth.  Last night, my brother and I stayed up until 1 am, what seems an every five year or so ritual of recounting our childhood stories and weird memories, trying to make sense of the inexplicable nature of our father. We grew up with a troubled man, an immigrant of mercurial moods and haunting, half-baked stories of war, a man of secrets.  He was a mystery to us, more so now that he’s dead.  Do we think that if we add up enough confusing fragments, they would resolve into clarity?   Accrue into something whole, a drop, a liquid bead, with form and weight?  Perhaps we believe on some level that the bead will then drop from our arms and shoulders, leaving us cleansed.

It’s good to stand in the rain sometimes.  Better to stand there together.  At the end of the night all we could offer each other was affirmation our mutual unresolved  confusion.  I hear yours.  Thanks for hearing mine. 

One hour later, at the station, waiting for my train back to Providence, RI, I’m watching inexplicable stories in the Amrack station.  A girl, maybe sixteen or seventeen, in heels so spiky and tall, she can’t walk a straight line, shoes held to her bare feet by a clear plastic band the color of head cheese jelly.  Dirty blonde hair stringy against her skinny shoulders.  Exhausted pale skin, some acne.  Two men converge on her, one scolding and urging her toward the double doors leading to the parking area, another old and grizzled-looking walking beside her for awhile, telling some kind of joke.  Someone’s daughter, I think.   Someday, like me, will she stay up late, talk with a sibling, try to piece the inexplicable broken bits into some semblance of a whole?  How do you tell such a story, with no narrative line?  With no transitions or connective tissue?  With too many tangled reasons? With missing pieces, big vacuous blanks, gaps, whole corners torn off.  Is it right to make up a narrative line?  My mother says tell it “in circles,” and that’s how she talks about her own broken, long-hidden memories of trauma.  If the fragments circle around you, there you are, standing in the center.  The solid trunk of yourself.  Whoever you are, you have constructed this self/soul, grown it up out of chaos, muddle, shattering.

Healing is like that.  There is no linear progression, no twelve consecutive steps.  Even people I know who’ve joined literal twelve step programs don’t finish the twelfth and stop and consider themselves done.  They circle back.  Each circle perhaps closes in upon the self/soul, the thing that you are attempting to make, to create, to rebuild, out of what’s inborn and out of whatever’s happened to you. The title of a book of poems by Olena Davis is “And Her Soul Out of Nothing.”  I have thought about that title for years.  I love the idea implicit in it.  I like to wake up every morning and think about it, the promise and responsibility held within those six words.

When I look at my brother, I do not see my father’s baffling, shape-shifting story thick around him, obscuring his features or his actions.  When I look at my brother I see someone solid, vertical, a certain kind of tree.  His children could tell you a pretty straight-forward narrative of growing up with that man as their dad.   He burdened them with no secrets or sleights of hand.  When my brother looks at me, I hope he doesn’t see breast cancer or childhood wounds.  I hope he doesn’t see memories impossible to decipher or resolve.  I hope he sees a tree-shaped soul, standing in the rain.

Friday, March 8, 2013

In the Meadow of a Darker Darkness

Another early morning at the hotel coffee shop in Boston.  Outside, the blizzard still rages.  It was quieter here yesterday, but this is the second day of the conference, and the governor has been turned up very high.  The writers are amped.  All around me people are talking about writing.  Books contracted, reviews published, favorite talks, books read, writing projects, poetry.  At one table, three people tap madly on their laptops.  Others peruse the catalogue, trying to decide which panels and talks to attend today (deciding among twenty concurrent sessions).  Beside me, a man and woman passionately discuss the poet Elizabeth Bishop.  I think this conversation is actually the rarest magic.  Not “networking,” or sitting passively and exhausted listening to panel discussions, then moving like en masse up or down an escalator to the next session.  In conversations, random encounters, connections rooted in love of writing. 

But then there are the ideas lifted from the overwhelm of language coming at me, all day long.  There’s another way to look at all this.  It’s like I’m wandering around in a daze through a summer meadow with my butterfly net, trying to snatch some exotic, startling new species from the thrum of millions.  Yesterday I netted a phrase from a reading by Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, something about wanting darkness to get even darker.  And my insides leaned toward those words as they flitted by, saying yes.  And in a morning talk about eco-poetics, a neurobiologist’s theory was bandied, that religion is an evolutionary response to the fear of death.  Without it, the speaker said, we would live in a constant state of horror.  And my insides leaned in, then back, and said, “Wait, is that true?”  It is easy to collect and collect such specimens of language and idea, and like a naturalist, jot notes, lose those pages as the onrush of new data floods in.  It’s such a big, astonishing and confusing meadow.  But how do you let such strange butterflies escape without studying them?

Because people do it every day, religious or not, face up to their own “annihilation.”  People diagnosed with a serious illness face it.  People in their late years face it.  People who lose a loved one face it.  Who does that leave?  Poets do it every time they sit down to write, and maybe it’s even why they sit down.  Last night, two master poets, Seamus Heaney and Dereck Walcott, both quite ancient, discussed their friend the late Russian émigré poet Joseph Brodsky.  Walcott said that Brodsky lived (and wrote) in constant fear of his failing heart.  When he was dying, he wrote about a “wild darkness” toward which he was heading.  Walcott also described his belief that poetry is rooted in silence.  It doesn’t just arises out of silence.  It creates silence.  A poem’s initiation (maybe a moment of inspiration) makes a space of silence from which a poem emerges. 

At the eco-poetics panel, which examined how poetry and science relate to each other, the word “wonder” kept flying around.  The panelists claimed that the expression of wonder was what separated science from poetry.  My friend the writer Doug Chadwick would disagree.  He calls science “an organized form of wonder.”  But arguing that claim isn’t the point here.  Something else didn’t ring true about it.  I couldn’t stop thinking that poetry isn’t just an expression of wonder.  We aren’t just open-mouthed and wide-eyed dreamily swishing our nets around at the swarm of insect life above our heads.  We are running for our lives, or we are lying face down, gripping fistfuls of grass, holding on to the earth, weeping bitter tears into the dirt.  Poetry is about horror as well as wonder.  The wild darkness we confront when we write. 

Am I implying that poetry is my religion?  It’s true, writing is what gives me the courage to face the wonder and horror of life and death on earth, and the inevitability of my own annihilation.  Meanwhile, I want to stay part of this buzz and hum.  I want to drink coffee and walk out in the blizzard, the wind gusting so hard, I’m afraid to cross the street for fear it will knock me down.  I want to flit and flirt and comingle.  But without stopping, without writing, without daily confrontation with the wild dark forever at my (your) heels, I risk another kind of annihilation.

Here are the lines of Valzhyna Mort’s poem “Mockingbird Hotel”:

But often, to shed light on the darkness, light
isn’t enough.  Often what I need is even a darker

In her poem, hallelujahs break out on the gritty streets.  They wash over the ground, stir up birds.  Now night has fallen on the meadow.  I wander, the tall grass shushing my thighs, my net flailing in the air above me, gathering darkness, along with a few stars, giving them back.

(In memory of Ginny Hill Wood, from wild aliveness, passed into wild darkness.  She won't feel a stranger.) 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Never Not Broken

Cape Cod.  March.  Coming in like a lioness, wind gusting all night, rattling the roof of my sister's house.  Waking me at 2 am, in my attic bed.  The trees bare and making scratchy noises against the ash-colored sky.  The grass a heathery blend of stubborn (or foolish) green and tan.  Mud.  Bluster.  Hats, gloves, a neck warmer knit of musk ox wool by my graduate student.  Cape Cod.  Memory palace.  Walk down a familiar sandy trail to the bay with my sister's goofball golden retriever, the official breed of the Cape.  Each new resident to the Cape is handed a blonde pup by the Chamber of Commerce (it sure seems that way).  Some greedy people take two or three.  Sand in my shoes.  Each branch brushing my leg reminding me to do a tick-check later.  Cape Cod.  A coffee shop called Jo Mama's.  A niece and two nephews, now grown into that sweet spot:  14, 12, 10.  Real conversations about their very real and separate worlds.  Settlers of Catan game going on for days.  The attic bedroom that talks to me, whispers in my ear.  In the thick of chemo-induced anemia I'd crawled the last flight of stairs on all fours. Insomnia.  Lakes, swamps, doctors.  The UU church, now renovated.  Whenever I go to a service, tears.  At the same old songs, at what they meant to me three years ago, as I sought weekly refuge there.  Memories like ghosts that brush my shoulders and calves and hair.  I don't even have to greet them anymore, say hello, they just flit through, and are gone.

It's been three years.  I thought the oncologist would tell me that it was another "graduation day."  That three years would signify some right of passage.  Deemed safe enough to return for only once a year appointments, instead of twice.  Instead he said:  "You look very healthy, perfect in fact."  And then he said, "I'll be seeing you every six months for at least five years."  Don't get me wrong.  I like chatting with Dr. S., who answers every question with thoughtfulness and challenges what he sees as my more extreme or non-scientific choices with a raised eyebrow and a scholarly yet wry, "Why?"  Making sure I'm not following some crack-pot advice. 

"Why no dairy?"

"Isn't there something about caseinate?"

"It's out there.  But no study has backed it up yet."

"The Mediterranean diet doesn't include much dairy."  (I know from his wife's blog that they like this one).

"Goat cheese."

"Yeah, I used to like goat cheese."

"There's only one food item that's been definitively linked with breast cancer."

I'm thinking this might be something new, and for a second I worry that the science is going to switcheroo again around soy.  "What is it?"


Sometimes suffering is a subtle ache under the breast bone, a ghost of suffering.  Last time I saw Dr. S., I left the office with the ache transformed into a brightness, joy, the cousin of suffering.  This time, it was tempered.  Never not broken.  And yet moving forward from that place.  And writing from that place.  Cape Cod.  Boston.  Dr. S.  A man in his sixties who devotes his life to caring for those with cancer, to studying it, with the hope that someday the suffering he bears witness to -- including that of his wife, a two-time breast cancer survivor -- will lessen.  Brave enough to sit in and with the suffering, day after day.      

In church, the minister used the word "akinanda," said it meant "never not broken."  The nature of life.  Cape Cod.  Cancer.  The body.  Wild weather, wild coasts, cancer clusters.  Yearly arrival of right whales, fin whales, humpbacks.  Winter strandings of common dolphins.  Reluctant spring, persistent winter.  Not the summer dream of summer people, but a wintery landscape.  Leafless.  Earth-toned.  The grit and rough fibers showing through.  Body never not broken, yet perfect. 

The minister last Sunday said we create out of brokenness.  I had my journal and starting jotting notes, tears splatting on the page and blurring my scribbles.  Does all art arise out of brokenness? I wrote.  I know my friend Jo, an artist and spiritual healer, would vehemently disagree, but in my life, it's been true. 

You can't talk about brokenness and art and not bring up Leonard Cohen.  And the minister did.  She quoted his famous "Anthem":

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.   

An ex-girlfriend of Cohen's, asked in an interview where his lyrics come from, song after song, said that they came because he was brave enough to sit in the suffering and write from it. 

Finishing this post, I am in Boston, the morning before a big writing conference, sitting in a Starbucks at 6:30 am.  Outside, a fierce wind blows snow sideways.  March lions in, roaring, stalking down the narrow streets.  There are 11,000 writers and teachers here, in this complex of hotels and halls, with private reasons and intentions and hidden and exposed brokenness.  I think of my visit with Dr. S.  "You look perfect, in fact."  And yet, "every six months for at least five years," my never not broken body will be checked for signs of cancer coming back.  The meaning of writing, the aspiration, the work and craft: to be brave enough it sit with that.  To sit and write like a refugee.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Head-Tripping Down That Crazy River

It’s my last full day in Hawaii, and I’m sitting outside the kava bar in the sun with a cup of tea.  I’ve been texting with my niece about change.  I’m resisting it right now, digging in my heels.  I’ve been alternately anxious, sad, and calm about this next chapter in my life, leaving Craig for a month, flying east thousands of miles to Boston to see my family, to attend a writing conference, to give some readings, and of course to see all of my doctors for the six-month ritual.  It will be three years since my diagnosis come April. 

My mind is somersaulting ahead of me, but my body is very much here on this metal chair, at this red table, wind gusts buffeting me, a green gecko staring me in the eyes.   The antidote to anxiety has been, as always, focusing on what’s right in front of me, what’s finding it’s way into my ears.  The wind’s making a hollow fluty sound.  Some trippy music is playing.  A man’s talking about getting ice cream.  Life doesn’t actually careen, but proceeds by moments like these.  One after another. 

This morning, after meditation, I pulled a Zen card from the stack “Mind” was the card I drew.  An ugly image of a head filled with mechanical parts.  Sometimes oracles can be shockingly plain-spoken, and I’m reminded to be careful what I ask for.  “There’s a head trip going on around you,” the text said.  “Take a look at yourself; it might be yours.”  And it was.  My head was tripping over a passel of writing grants I had on my list to apply for, all of them due on March 1, the day I arrive in Boston.   And this impossible to-do list was completely interfering with my ability to be present.  But a part of me was thinking (and writing on a to-do list) that I would apply to them all, and still take one last run through the gulch, one last walk, have one last dinner with my friends.  With one day left here on the island.  And so at 2 pm I had to make a choice.  Be present here, now, or go into a major stress-mode.  Not enough mode.  Comparison mode.  Scarcity mode.  Whatever mode.  Craig said, “Well, by waiting until the last minute, you basically made a choice about what is most important to you.”  Ouch.  True, I suppose.  Craig is also a non-word-mincing oracle in my life.  But that’s another matter. 

There’s something pre-cancerous about that head-trip:  not wanting to choose.  Wanting it all.  The never-enough machine.  It’s what makes me hesitate to buy airline tickets, driving Craig mad.  If I make a choice, it means I rule out another option.  And how will the people in my life react to my choice?  What I mean by “pre-cancerous” is partly how I lived my life before cancer, and partly a comparison to the beast itself.  Cancer is a disease with a serious “never enough” complex.  It can’t stop.  It won’t stop.  It’s rapacious.  Like a badly managed fishery, it runs rampant until the very thing – a body – that sustains it is wiped out.

And I know that I can’t live that way anymore.  I had to take a deep breath and let go of those grant proposals.  I had to take a deep breath and say yes to this red table, and the writing of this blog post.  To saying conscious goodbyes to this place that has nurtured me for two and a half months.  “Things keep changing,” I texted my niece.  At times like these I feel like I’m floating above my own life, and it’s all slipping away.  Months have passed – how?  Three years have passed since the day someone said the word “malignant” and the word “cancer” and meant me, my body.  So much water has slipped under that bridge that divides my life into before and after.  And it IS slipping away, all of it, but I am not floating above anything, or standing upon a bridge watching. I am in it.  I am immersed, the flesh on earth muck and thrash of it.  I am on the moving walkway.  And no matter how hard I dig my heels in, the moving walkway does not stop.

So now it is 11 pm.  And my little office room is cleared out, a white sheet over the futon couch.  My bags are packed.  I drank tea at the kava bar and ordered seeds for our Alaskan garden.  I took that last run up the hill and down the gulch with the dog.  I made one last meal with my friends.  Laura and I carried our baskets outside to pick veggies from the garden, and all the hens, ducks and geese ran toward us and milled around our ankles.  We put our baskets down and tossed them handfuls of cracked corn.  Tippy the goose ate from my hands.  Wally the rooster ate cracked corn off a duck’s back.  We filled their water can, then picked spinach and basil and tat soi and chard and kale and cooked together.  We said goodnight.  The grant proposals I could have written – they are far out of sight by now; they’ve slipped away.  The trade winds are fierce.  I will sleep, immersed in their persistence, slipping down the river, along with everything else.

P.S.  That's the moon setting in the photo ...