Thursday, January 31, 2013

Some Geese Lean, Wobble and Fall Down

Sometimes it seems there is a corollary to everything I write in this blog.  There is an equal and opposite.  If I had a work-apron tied around my waist, the way I did last Saturday, at the farmer’s market, in one pocket I would need words and phrases like “on the other hand,” or “nevertheless,” or “but,” or “in contrast,” or “to contradict.”  Every time I wrote what smacked of epiphany, insight, or certainty, I’d instinctively reach into that pocket, ready to deploy.  “I will lean into the light,” I wrote.  Reach into the apron, pull out “But.”  But that very night, after I wrote those words, I acted like a jerk.  I will lean into the light.  What hubris!  I will try.  A little closer to the truth.

As I look out my window right now, I watch the ducks shake their tail feathers dry after their morning swim in the pond, three white ones bright against green grass.  I envy the fowl.   Do they ever feel bad about themselves?  They don’t have to work to lean into the light, into life, lean out of the mind's "monkey chatter," as my yoga teacher puts it.  They are in life, smack and dabble.   

Last night, Craig scolded me for tinkering with his black beans in front of our friend, and I was embarrassed.  I’d bustled in, hungry from yoga, and Craig was there in the kitchen tending a homemade tortilla cooking in a cast iron pan.  It was 7:45 pm, and after 15 years with this man, I know that by that time of day, after working with a pick and shovel and a hard swim, he was hungry and grumpy from low blood sugar.  But my beans!  I’d tended the black beans all day, left them cooling on the stove when I headed to yoga, for final touches from Craig.  But obviously, I still felt possessive.  Like the geese, I am far from subtle around food, around cooking.  I don’t use my voice to screech and hiss, but maybe I use everything else, my body language, my actions.  I leaned, not into any kind of light, but across the stove, lifted the lid, and shook some chili de arbol powder onto the surface.  Craig said, “I already added cumin” at the same moment that about five tablespoons of chili powder broke free from the clump in the jar and landed all over the beans.  And Craig got mad.  “You would never tolerate me monkeying with the food that way if you were cooking!”  I spooned off what I could, stirred the rest in, and hoped for the best.  Our friend Kevin, who’s known us long enough to have seen it all, looked the other way, sipping his ice water.  If I were a goose, I would have hissed back at Craig, and then just walked away.  And forgotten about it.  But I held it close, ate in silence, and it was like ingesting not food, but a shadow.  Or chili de arbol powder, straight.  I went to sleep with that hurt, that indignation, held close to my chest as a stuffed animal.  And I woke up at 2 am, with the usual shadow-boxing going on in my head, but also the new shadow I’d added the night before, spicing up the mix. 

After reading a bit, chewing a melatonin pill, I fell asleep and dreamed that I had to return to high school.  (That old dream, don’t you love it!).  No, I wasn’t naked.  But I was late for a test.  I’d been informed that I had never taken a long, written, essay exam, so had never officially graduated.  I sat down with the blue book among a large roomful of teenagers and wrote as fast as I could with a pencil.  I had to catch up with everyone else.  Before I could finish, though, I was called out of the room for some dream-reason, and when I returned, the time was up.  The room was empty, except for a woman collecting pencils who told me that it was too late now.  I’d have to take the test again some other time.  “But,” I said, puffing myself up like Wally, the lame rooster, “I’ve published three books!  Doesn’t that count for anything?”

She hesitated.  I could tell she thought I was making it up, but was considering.  “Just check Google,” I insisted.  And then the tea pot whistle woke me.

“I’ve had cancer!  Doesn’t that count for anything?”  Well, no.  “I’m 49.  Doesn’t that count for anything?”  No again.

At the farmer’s market last Saturday, I helped my friends Peter and Lauren sell vegetables.  Peter is a 60-something farmer/philosopher/socialist trained by a legendary organic farmer in Santa Cruz in the 60’s.  Craig actually worked on this man’s farm when he was in college.  Lauren, who is 20-something, is Peter’s assistant, but that’s not an adequate word.  For over a year, when Peter was getting the farm started, she volunteered for him, working 60+ hour weeks, because she believed in his cause, which is to provide food to the common people, affordable organic food.  Not just to well-off people, the usual demographic for organic.  He sells huge bags of lettuce for $3 (at the grocery store, a much smaller bag goes for $6).  A glorious bunch of spinach for $2.  An enormous bundle of carrots or beets for $3.  Bok choy or tat soi:  $1:50 a bundle.  I helped with the harvest last Friday, so I know what goes into just the picking and preparing of each of item (and that doesn’t count the weeding and fertilizing and treating with organic pest products).  I’d witnessed the careful way the lettuce is boxed in the field.  The loading of boxes onto the truck, the unloading of boxes at the wash table under the lychee trees, the hosing down of the lettuce, the draining of water, the icing, the reloading back into the truck.  Over a hundred bunches of carrots get piled on that rickety plywood table to be hosed and repacked and iced.  At the market, at 6 am, the boxes are opened, and each bib of lettuce is dipped in buckets of cold water, old leaves trimmed off, and then it is bagged.  The carrot bunches are dipped in cold water and arranged on the table.  Now, at last, Lauren gets paid, but Peter barely makes enough money to cover her hourly wage, and the wages of part time workers like Joey, who come for the harvest or for transplanting on Sundays.  What’s left covers the cost of seed, organic fertilizer, equipment, repairs.  Peter never stops working those four acres, sometimes alone.  He’s a dawn to dusk guy.  The whole 10 hour day we harvested the farm for market, I never saw him take a break or eat more than a banana or two.  Did he even drink water?  I think I saw him take a swig once or twice from a coconut when Lauren reminded him. 

I kept fucking up all day, both harvesting, and at the market.  I cut the lettuce at too much of an angle.  I sprayed water over the celery, instead of slowly moving the hose between the plants.  I flooded the rows by watering too close to the edge.  I made my beet and carrot bunches too big or too small.  I stacked the truck wrong.  I gave the wrong change.  I hadn’t passed the test.  I still haven’t.

Three books, cancer, college, whatever.  In the grit of the everyday, no, it doesn’t count for much.  It doesn’t help me pick lettuce faster, or count change when I’m distracted.  It doesn’t give me any kind of certainty or righteous answer.  If you lean too far toward light or darkness, as my yoga teacher says, “you end up on your ass.”  Actually, he says, “The more you try to force this, the greater the chance that you’ll end up on your ass.”  I am grateful for the moments when it all seems so clear.  Just lean into the light.  It’s that simple.  But it isn’t.  I lean and I fall.  Can I change it now?  Take it back, reach into the pocket of my apron, grab one of those phrases that counteract certainty, a kind of anti-venom to the word “should?”  Tack it on?  Nevertheless, last night, I fell into my own shadow.  And I stayed there for twelve hours.  I forgot that life is beautiful and temporary and that I’m lucky to be in it. 

Anyway, who says geese have all the answers?  The goose in yesterday’s post is named “Tippy” for a reason.  It’s because he’s so front-heavy, sometimes when he leans, he just topples over.  It’s weird to see a goose fall down.  Once, our friend found him helpless on his back, stuck that way for who knows how long.  That’s another thing my yoga teacher says, when we’re lying on our backs trying to bring our crossed feet behind our heads:  “The more you try to force this, the greater the chance you’ll get stuck this way forever.”

Dear Craig:  I am sorry I leaned in too far and ruined your beans.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Leaning In With the Geese, Ducks and Chickens

One of the best parts of my day here in Hawaii is the daily ritual of getting up from my desk around 3 pm and walking across the orchard to open the door to the chicken tractor, letting loose the hens and their man, Wally, out for their daily foraging.  As soon as they hear my footsteps, the come rushing, flapping off the perches, gathering by the door, and when I open it, they spill our around my ankles.  If they’re hungry, they linger, and I pour a little feed into their troughs.  The ducks and geese, always free-rangers, know this ritual, too.  The ducks waddle over from where they’ve been resting under the breadfruit tree, and they beg, almost touching my legs with their out-stretched heads, barely audible huffs coming from their rapidly opening and closing beaks – breath-stutterers.  They are gentle and sweet, and will even let me lay a hand on their springy backs.  The geese are another story.  They don’t beg; they demand, necks out-stretched, hissing, clamoring, screeching until I toss some feed in their direction.  Tippy, the tame goose, sidles up, bumps against my shins until I lower a scoop of food, let him eat from it.  I pet his neck, which is flexible as a snake’s body.  “Shut up,” I yell at other male, with his ugly bulbous black beak and open mouth and curled tongue.  Then I check their water, run fresh water into the pond, the water trough, and the chickens scatter, hunting along the garden fence and under the bamboos for centipedes, beetles, and who knows what else. 

I do that day after day, and I know that I experience a fleeting sensation of satisfaction.  Here is one ordinary task I have accomplished, and the fowl are content now, if not happy.  I like to think they are happy.  Lucky fowl.  Lucky Wally, the old rooster with the lame leg that gives him a goose-stepping gait.  He can’t keep up with his hens these days, but every once in awhile, he puffs up and delivers a proud coca-doodle.   “Say it,” Wally, I call, encouraging him.  And then I go back to my business, whatever it is that calls itself work on a given day: reading student writing, writing poems, reviewing biology papers.  And the days go by, and the moments of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.  Only when I write down what happened do I know, with my whole body and mind, how lucky I am.  Lucky as Wally, as those hens, as the sheep resting in the pasture right now, staring out at the dreamy gray ocean, languishing after a Kona storm. 

In an article about writer George Saunders in the New York Times, I found this quote.  I typed it into a computer file labeled “notes for blog post.”  I can’t remember now if Saunders said this, or if a friend of his said it, or if the author of the article about Saunders did.  I can’t even remember the context for these words, just that they refer to some kind of near-miss.  “For three or four days after that,” he said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, if you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”

That’s the trick.  Even after cancer, it’s still a trick.  There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground says the old chestnut.  But more importantly, there are a hundred ways to NOT kneel and kiss the ground.  There are more than a hundred ways to forget that it’s going to end.  There are a thousand ways to forget that the most ordinary of tasks, done on “two strong legs,” (as poet Jane Kenyon wrote), without thought or deliberation, such as schlepping a water dispenser to the chicken coop, is an extraordinary thing, a privilege. 

I know that feeling of having “gotten back in it.”  My life, I mean.  And I remember the sense of having it taken away, at least the version I’d taken for granted.  When I was going through cancer treatment, I very much felt that I’d been snatched out of my life and was living in a parallel universe.  I could see, through a glass partition, “the land of the living,” as I called it then.  And I wasn’t in it, I thought.  I was inside looking out.  I was invisible, irrelevant to that universe of mundane trips to the grocery store, or picking up kids at music lessons.  I felt it particularly in the hospital lobby, that grand entrance where everyone comes and goes, doctors in their white coats, stethoscope’s casually tossed over their shoulders, nurses clutching lattes from the Starbucks, healthy-looking people in street clothes, rushing by.  To me, they seemed always to be heading for the door to the street.  To me, the scent of fresh air clung to their clothes.  And then there were the others, and now I was one of them, for the first time in my life.  People in wheelchairs pushed by grave-looking loved ones.  People pressing the 9 button in the elevator, heading up, with me, to the floor called “Oncology/Hematology.”  Bald people.

There are not two parallel universes.  I was naïve then, and I was indulging in self-pity.  Health is temporary state, for all of us.  We are all in it, this strange world where one minute you are striding toward the revolving doors to hail a taxi, and the next minute, you are sitting by a window waiting for a car to pick you up after surgery.  It’s a revolving door.  We are revolving citizens of a beautiful and tragic world.

And the trick, for me, of remembering, forcing myself to kneel and kiss the ground (well, not the ground around the chicken coop), is to do that without fear or panic or dwelling in shadows.

I have a least favorite part of my day, and it comes all too often, almost as regularly as my chicken-tending duty.  It used to be pervasive, but now, it only occurs once, passing through me briefly, like a seizure.  Almost every night, I wake up, sometime around midnight, maybe 2 am, in the dark, and a nameless sensation of dread, of nausea, overtakes me.  All my stored up fears press me flat to the mattress.  Sometimes I find myself whispering desperate prayers.  Sometimes I push my fingers into my right armpit, or along my ribcage, convinced I’ll find a lump.  I tell no one about this (well, until now).  My eyes are wide, and I wait in this presence, this second kind of remembering, until it passes.  The valley of the shadow.  The shadow passing over me.

In an interview on Fresh Air, writer Barry Lopez spoke about his being abused as a child by a family friend.  He wrote an essay about it in last month’s Harpers.  I listened to the interview the other afternoon, and I typed this into the file called “notes for blog post,” words Lopez spoke at the end of the interview: “One must live in the middle of contradictions.  Leaning into the light.” 

There are a hundred ways to lean after cancer.  You can lean into the dark places, or lean into the light, and sometimes it feels as if you are being leaned.  It may be a memory, or a statistic you read, or a movie, or news of someone’s cancer coming back.  You stand at the precise edge, between light and dark, like someone standing not inside, not outside, a campfire’s glow.  It is an effort to lean into the light places, especially at first.  You have to do it repeatedly, until it becomes a habit, like a tree’s habit of growing straight, or with the wind.  I don’t want to return to that state of illusion, when I thought there were two kinds of people, the well and the unwell.  We are all here, in the land of the living.  Whether we are cancer-free, or dying of cancer, in remission, or cured.  The chickens, geese and ducks lean me into the light of the living, yes, but more than that, writing leans me into it.  It reminds me that it is a beautiful, flawed, broken world, and I am here, now.  We are in it together.

George Saunders, in the article, said the following: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

I will try.  I will listen to this goose named Tippy, who says,  Lean in.  Someone might just throw me a handful of corn, or lean back toward me.  And it is enough.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

One Morning, Out Walking, the "S" Word Met the "W" Word

A writer is a person who writes.  A survivor is a person who survives.  Why did those two sentences suddenly alight on the same branch this morning?  As though scared out of the tall grass by my walk with poet Mary Ruefle’s book, when she said: “What I am trying to tell you is this: every time you write an unengaged letter, you are wasting another opportunity to be a writer.  The greater the disparity between the voice of your poems and the voice of your letters, the greater the circumference of the point you have missed.  The demands upon you, as a writer, are far greater than you could have guessed when you filled out your application form and mailed it.  How far are you willing to travel this love you profess to have for words?” 

It was my friend Sean who told me that a writer is a person who writes.  He told me that many people he knew said they wanted to write, but never got around to it.  He told me over and over again, when I first started writing in earnest, “Eva, you are a writer.”  He would come over and find me upstairs at my computer, typing the letters that formed words that formed sentences on the screen.  To this day, his words hound me, question me, reassure me.  I call myself a writer.  But am I writing?  Or, other days, I lament that I’m not writing what I think I should be writing; I’m writing something else that engages me at the moment.  I am writing.  I am being a writer. 

And since I’m a writer, I concern myself with words.  I puzzle over them, even unconsciously sometimes.  For example, I do not like the word “survivor” anymore.  It implies a hierarchy, and an agency, that doesn’t exist for me.  It implies that certain heroic people who continue to live a life after some disaster deserve this mantle.  While others, who succumbed, or crumbled, or struggled in obscurity, do not.  When it comes to cancer, it is even more fraught and dangerous a word.  Cancer actually brings up a lot of judgment from others.  I know people who still carry anger at loved ones for choices they made or didn’t make regarding treatment of cancer.  If only he/she didn’t wait so long … If only he/she didn’t get chemotherapy.  If only he/she listened to us.  The other day, working in the outdoor courtyard of the coffeeshop, I overheard such a conversation among a group of women.  Someone had received chemo and died anyway, not from the cancer, but from the chemo, was the implication.  I almost got up from my table and walked over to say “I am alive because of chemotherapy.”  And I know as these words form on the screen in front of me that some of my friends would argue with me vehemently.  I have heard their theories before.  That I am alive for some other reason, some approach I took, despite “Western” medicine.  And perhaps they are right.  I have no way of knowing why I am alive today, healthy today.  I believe surgery, chemotherapy and radiation stopped the advance of my aggressively advancing cancer.  And if one day I succumb, I will have no way of knowing why, either.  It is perhaps a characteristic of being human that we so badly want to know why.  It’s certainly a characteristic of writers.  Every poem and essay I write is driven by what my mother-in-law called the "crooked letter.”  Y.   So I can’t blame anyone who invents theories about cancer, that disease most resistant to answers.  Cancer is a crooked word, a crooked disease, and it elicits crooked attempts at answers.

I suppose I believe the hospital's oncology social worker (who’s herself survived two bouts of breast cancer) when she says “survival is a crapshoot.”  We survive or don’t, just like we stub our toe or don’t, or get rear-ended or don’t. Today I am healthy, because I feel that way, and that is what I know and can say about survival and breast cancer.  Tomorrow?  We’ll see.  I don’t want to be set apart from any of my sisters and brothers by the "S" word, either, even those who have died or are dying of the disease.  In the parlance of breast cancer, a woman is considered a survivor from the day of her diagnosis.  I think this is supposed to imply a democratic stance.  Until the day you die, you are a survivor.  But how does the woman diagnosed with metastatic cancer feel about that word?  I can’t say.  I can only say what it feels like to a woman who was diagnosed and treated for non-metastatic cancer that had nonetheless spread to her lymph nodes.  And perhaps it’s my long history as a mariner, or my Catholic childhood with its mystical aspects, or my dabbling as a 20-something in Wiccan rituals.  But it feels like baiting fate, dangerous, to say “I am a survivor” out loud.  Perhaps in my mirror, as an affirmation, one of those private things we say to bolster our flagging confidence in ourselves, and it would be okay.  Nonetheless, I celebrate every day of my life post-cancer, even the ones I tried to doze through, when I felt so sick from chemo, and couldn’t escape my body’s prison, even into sound sleep.  From this vantage, those worst days remind me of something my friend Lou Brown said once.

We were on a winter mountaineering trip in the Alaska Range.  Her husband Jon and I were graduate students.  Jon was a mountaineer, and ten years younger than Lou.  And while Lou was (and is) strong and fit and outdoorsy, Jon was of another order.  I still think Jon’s skeleton is like that of a raptor, or the frame of a ski-plane: light yet impossibly strong.  Once, at the end of a full day’s hard trek up a glacier, exhausted, we all dropped our packs and rested before we had to begin digging a snow cave for the night’s shelter.  Not Jon.  He charged up a steep slope, took off his climbing skins, and danced back down.  These were heavy metal-edged backcountry skis.  He didn’t execute the slow, exacting telemark turns those skis are made for, he kept them parallel, and he flitted.  I said he seemed to have the bones of a raptor, so I won’t say he moved like a flying fish or dragonfly or water-strider, but like a peregrine falcon.  More than two decades later, I can replay that vision of him, down to the bare rocks he dodged on his descent.  Well, that was Lou’s husband, and for Lou and I, it took a measure of fortitude to even arrive at that spot, with our fifty-pound packs.  It was my first or second mountaineering trip, and another moment that is just as vivid in my memory as Jon’s descent, is another, when Lou and I had stopped to rest and she was sharing some of her frozen butter cookies with me.  I couldn’t imagine trudging on for hours more and felt demoralized, sweaty, shoulders aching.  I’d been admiring the way she moved her body across the snow.  She didn’t flit, like Jon, she was more like a Sherpa, or a bear, taking short but steady strides across the surface, leaning slightly forward, not letting herself get too hot, like me.  Slow, determined.  She described to me another endurance trip with Jon, on foot, climbing a mountain.  She said something like this:  “I was struggling inside, hating it, and I finally realized that to get through it, I had to tell myself that it was one step at a time.  Every step brought me closer to the end, and that the whole distance was a series of single steps.”  Lou had studied meditation, and I recognized Buddhist philosophy at the heart of her approach.

So maybe that’s where I end up this morning, with this writing about the word “survivor.”  Perhaps it’s more helpful to think about "big" abstract (and even iconic) words like "writer" and "survivor" in a different form.  The verb form instead of the noun, the action instead of the label.  When I sit down to write – whether a letter, diary entry, essay, blog post, or poem – in a way that follows a trail of a question, one word at a time, I am being a writer.  I am embodying the role; I am engaged.  And in the same way, when I live my life by following a trail of questions, pursing my curiosity, focusing not on what’s in the future, but on the patch of earth at my feet, or the people sitting down to breakfast with me this morning, it doesn’t matter whether I am, literally, a cancer survivor, with a capital "S": lucky or cured or blessed.  Hell, none of us is a survivor in the end.  Yet I am being a survivor.  I am being alive. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Birthday Of A Book: She Seemed to Be Afraid, For She Went on Writing

“He seemed to be depressed, for he went on writing.” These words are from an ancient Japanese text quoted in poet Mary Ruefle’s essay “On Fear.”  She also quotes Rilke:  “I have taken action against fear.  I sat up the whole night and wrote; and now I am as thoroughly tired as after a long walk in the fields at Ulsgaard.”

Last night, powerful rain woke me up at 2 am.  The island is profoundly thirsty, and it soothed me to think of that water quenching the dry earth, saturating the porous soil, soaking deep to reach the roots of newly planted native trees and baby beets and beans in the garden.  I thought also of the next day, when my new book would officially be published.  The book, along with this blog, and my recent project of writing prayer-poems, represent my living out the truth of those quotes.  Writing is the way I take action against the unknown, the void, the doubt, the terror.  And it’s been that way since I can remember.  As a child, I had two secret friends:  Jesus and my journal.

Often in the midst of gravest duress, actually, I stop writing.  When my mother suffered a brain aneurysm, I was so consumed with the daily coming to terms with that tragedy and its reverberations through our family, I couldn’t bring myself to recount each day’s horrible events.  But during cancer treatment, my therapist urged me to write.  Not even urged.  It was my homework: to write poetry each week and read it to her.  My baldness, my nausea, my homesickness, my fear, my acid reflux, my peeling skin, my steroid-induced breakdowns, the stifling heat of Cape Cod that summer, none of it struck me as the stuff of poetry.  I was drowning in physicality.  I was in no position to be transformed.  I could recognize none of it as fodder for what a writer seeks:  epiphany, meaning, insight.  Writing didn’t bring relief.  And yet, I believe, those words on a page, those discards – rinds, pits, skins, bruises, bitter leafy matter – formed the soil from which later writing would come.  It took time, and rain, and words.

My oncologist asked me once if writing the blog didn't make things harder for me, and I told him it was the opposite.  For me, to face my fear on the page, to write my way into and through, affords the only antidote I know to fear’s consuming power.  Fear perhaps is some unnamed thirst inside me.  It thirsts to be heard, witnessed.   It thirsts to speak.  To hear that choked whisper of a voice, I must be fully present, engaged with questions, ideas and my life. 

Perhaps some of my loved ones’ concerns over my continuing to write about my experience with cancer for over two years, and for keeping the name “Alaskan in Cancerland” as the blog’s masthead, mirror the unknown Japanese author’s concern for his friend, who “seemed to be depressed, for he went on writing.”  For the one who is afraid, and writes as balm, or writes because he or she has no other effective medicine, it is hard to explain this relationship.  Don’t we want to chase fear or despair out from its hiding place in the corner and show it the door?  The way this morning I swiped blow-in dirt off the window ledge and swept a panful of detritus from the floor beneath the window and tossed it out?  Why engage with difficult emotional states?  For me, it’s this way.  Life will never cease unexpectedly storming on me.  Dirt will blow in again to rime the furniture.  My loved one will track muddy footprints across the wood floor.  All of this coming at me: my impulse is to make something of it, all of it.  For me, it is like paint or clay.  It is my given material, what I have to work with, the ordinary detritus of a day, as well as the extraordinary mudslide of traumatic event.  To approach fear is to approach the edge of the known inner world, my limit.  The heart thumps, fear urges me forward, across the threshold, and line by line, a poem appears in my notebook, a paragraph coalesces out of a dark night.

So cancer found its way into my memoir about a vanishing orca family.  So orcas found their way into my blog about cancer recovery.  So invasive birds – saffron finches – found their way into yesterday’s poem about my mother.  So this fine, almost invisible rain, falling now out of a dingy sky, finds its way here, at this point in the blog.  As well as my empty coffee cup.  And one white sailboat my love mistook for a moment to be a breaching humpback whale this morning.  And the drum-skin the metal roof became last night, waking me.  And me lying there, listening.

I wrote my way through breast cancer, and today, two years and a month after my last radiation treatment, January 15, is the birthday of a book.  Writing was the action I took against fear.  In the face of death, it was my faith in whatever span of life remained to me, to give it everything, and to receive from it everything, all the dirt, all the stars, all the rain, all the beauty, and make something.  I wrung words from that place out of which my fear sprung, which is the desperate love of life.

I am writing this for you, whoever you are, you who are about to enter, or are drowning in, or are crawling out of the experience of cancer.  This is a dispatch from the other side, the side of life, however long.  I will meet you here.   

Friday, January 4, 2013

Prayer of the Wasted Life

1.4.2013 Prayer

I have wasted my life.
          -James Wright

This is a prayer for all of the wasted moments,
days, hours badly spent, forays into the Internet
jungle-land of links from the launch of the words
symptoms of recurrent breast cancer. For tangled
sheets and novels whose plots and themes are
long-lost, for staring at the ceiling in the dark, trying
not to blink. For wasted fivers at coffee shops,
and browsing bookstalls waiting for delayed flights.
For batches of chocolate chip procrastination
and Scrabble moves, and movies, and the weather
underground. For taking way too long to choose
outfits, trying sweater after earring, convincing
yourself you require new shoes and a more neutral
color scheme. For subsequent stops in shops or www
whatever dot com to search for nothing you need,
shelling out money you don’t own. For magazines,
and staring out the window waiting for dawn, or night,
or the mail truck, or the right line for a failed poem.
For lingering near the duck pond for no good reason.
Arranging books on shelves alphabetically and by
size. To what purpose? For cleaning, and getting rid
of stuff and writing long emails. Wiping crumbs off
counters, and streaks, and smears of butter-substitute.
Cooking, generally, an excuse not to do something else.
Weeding. For God’s sake, a waiting room, is what this
looks like.  Outside, why are those trees just
standing there? Bum-birds hitched to their bum-limbs.
Wind blowing errant tinsel and what-knots
hither and yon. Everything waiting for the cows
to come home, when they won’t, ever. They’re cows,
and need to be driven. This is a prayer for
the gorgeous, blessed waste of it all.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Prayer of Soap and Rags

The first of the year, and after actually staying up to mark midnight in the last time zone in the U.S., Craig and I woke early, in a spring-cleaning state of mind.  It wasn’t conscious.  Just doing it.  Not stress, no discussion; it was what the new year asked of us.  Still in my pajamas, I started a load of laundry, then wandered out to the picnic spot, under the monkey pod trees, to collect cups and glasses, bottles and plates from last night's chili party while Craig sat down at his desk to write a letter to his daughter.  Then smoothies, then I followed Craig with a garden hose while he mopped the lanai, rubbing away the gecko poop, spraying leaves and grass off the edge.  Then laundry hung on the line, flapping in the growing trade wind.  Then hunger, one goose egg scrambled with some fresh dill from the garden, last night’s cornbread toasted and smeared with mac nut butter, drizzled with maple syrup.  And then, back to cleaning.  Craig hosed the salt off the windows of the house, then decided to build wind-break cages for his baby bananas next. 

When he asks me to help, I say no. Now I need some quiet time to write.

But before I do, one more task: clean the corner of the floor where I keep my altar and meditation cushion, where I sit to do my morning prayers and set my intentions.  I fill a yogurt container with warm water and oil soap, grab a rag from under the sink, and kneel down.  I clear away the incense boxes, the books and candles, and swab the wood floor of its layers of fine ash, gecko shit, clay dust and garden dirt.  On my hands and bare knees, I crawl along, swiping a wider and wider swath, and I wonder who it was that taught me to pray.  I think back to Catholic school, to CCD (Tuesday night church school), to my mother tucking us into bed with prayers in Latvian.  I think of Oma, my father’s mother, who prayed all day, an ancient book of crumbling pages, covers wrapped in layers of waxed paper, open on her broad lap.  She rocked and beat her breast with her fist when reciting the rosary, fingering the carved wooden beads, plain and unvarnished, a peasant rosary. But no, she wasn’t the one who taught me to pray; her spiritual realm was private, monastic, and to me as a child, one of the mysteries. 

I crawl along the floor, now wiping underneath the couch.  Washing a floor by hand with an old cloth napkin, I realize, is today’s prayerful act, and the one who taught me who to pray that way was my mother.  After her husband died, my mother’s mother (we called her Omama, to distinguish her from Oma) declined, had small strokes, then larger ones.  One of the last times I went to her little cottage-house with my mother and sister, we found it a shock, floors and cupboards grimy, bathroom dirty, houseplants unwatered.  One night, after Omama had gone to sleep, my mother, sister and I stayed up and cleaned.  “My mother could never imagine living in a dirty house,” my mother said, with bafflement in her voice.  I didn't understand then, but now I know what she meant.  Her mother, the version she’d known all her life, the capable, artistic, green thumb, whose small house was invariably cozy and clean, whose windows were filled with lush plants, cacti and mysterious African violets constantly blooming, the woman who raised her – she no longer lived in that house.  Instead there lived a fragile new version, a quiet woman in a pale blue sweater, prone to long silences, her brown eyes staring past us.  On hands and knees we three scrubbed the kitchen linoleum, the bathtub of its soap ring, the seam between toilet and floor.  We were young girls, yet we felt purposeful, needed, and uncertain.  Our mother so clearly grieved, our grandmother – where? And when would she return?  Could our cleaning restore her?  But for some things, there is no restoration, only change.  Our mother had suddenly entered the chapter where a daughter must push out of herself, out of her old role, like a shoot pushing up the half-frozen earth, the dead leaves, to become a mature plant, and not perennial. 

That night, we trimmed the dead leaves off the African violets.  We stayed up way past bedtime, way past midnight, learning from our mother how to take our rightful places, learning what would one day be asked of us.  She was capable, our mother, and knew just what to do, filling buckets at the sink, finding the rag bag and the oil soap.  Her sadness was palpable, and though we couldn't fathom it, we shared in it.  Though we knew our mother had entered a new foreign country, we followed her to its border, and when she reached back across to hand us a rag and can of Pledge, we took them from her, and went to work in our grandmother's living room. 

Today, I swab and rinse and remember, and the water in the plastic tub darkens.  I remember how my mother’s finger-skin used to crack from her labors, how once a slit opened at the knuckle and expelled a glass splinter.  That is also a form of prayer.  The wound buried, and we too young to understand, nevertheless, bearing witness.  And one day, unexpectedly, on the first day of a new year, recalling.  Only now, at the end of my forties, do I understand what she taught me of prayer.