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.