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 ... 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dark, Wild Nights and News of What is Found There

In the NY Times last week, writer Susan Gubar, who is living with advanced ovarian cancer, tells us about her “dark nights.”

How is this news?  It indeed is, but news of another kind than we’re normally used to finding beneath a headline.  It’s news from a bedroom.  It’s news from the interior of a disquieted mind woken in the middle of the night.  It’s news of the intensely personal psychological experience of imminent mortality.   It’s a dispatch from a place no one wants much to contemplate much less enter.   But I believe it’s news our souls need to be fully awake.  Poetry provides that kind of news also, as William Carlos Williams (who was a doctor as well as a poet) so beautiful stated in a famous poem:  It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.

I can’t help but think that Williams was thinking about his patients as well as his readers when he wrote those lines.  People do die miserably every day, or face the prospect of death, alone, with no one to witness their journey.  People fear this as they age or fall ill.  I’m thinking of how people seek out poems during the darkest times, as Joan Didion did after the sudden death of her husband (see her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking).  I’m thinking of my writer-friend Tom, whose wife died of ovarian cancer years ago.  I loaned him my copies of poet Donald Hall’s books about the loss of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon.  Tom kept those books for years.  I don't know if or when he read them.  Perhaps they were too painful, and at the same time, I hope, their existence reminded him that his own dark nights were not solitary.  Similarly, Susan Gubar’s dark nights ask us to witness her journey, to at the same time to know that we’re not alone in ours.  Others have gone before us, with grace, fully present.

It is a bright day where I sit contemplating dark nights, the sun splashing against the pale yellow shingled wall of a building, against the branches of fern trees, hibiscus and ti-plants and window-awnings painted dark green.  I sit in shadow, on a plastic chair at a plastic table.  The Nambu courtyard is my favorite place to work in Hawaii.  Behind the tiny café, a door opens to a garden with narrow covered wooden walkways, like funky boardwalks in some remote Alaskan village.  It’s a cool morning, and I wear a sweater.  A gray-green lizard emerges from a gap between the window trim and the wall of the building.  Myna-birds chark-chark in the palms, and the lizard jumps onto my table, watches me type. It’s a green-brown gecko with iridescent green eyes, the inside of its mouth pale peach.  Now, astride a leaf, it turns a little more greenish.  I watch its finely scaled skin expand below its underarms as it breathes.  It hops to the railing, disappears around the corner.  A crab spider bobs at the center of its web.  At the web’s edges, there is one blonde hair and a few bundles of insect cached for later.  The spider looks like a crumb of dried-up black bread.  It sits motionless and content in the center of perfectly woven death-trap.  It is morning in the land of the living.  Sunlight roots out the murk of shadows.  Things appear clear.

Susan Gubar’s dark night is familiar to me.  She describes waking at 1 am, staring at the band of light across her ceiling (from a night light), troubled by the thoughts that wait there, the fears, regrets, the darkness we mostly outrun, chasing daylight.  I can hear my older brother’s voice as I write this, chastising me for being too morbid, for dwelling too much in those places.  I’ve learned a lot from that brother, how to spin a disappointing experience around to find its hidden bright face.  Once, when I was in the midst of chemo, he and his wife drove Craig and me to the Bronx to visit my childhood neighborhood, along Fordham Road, in an old Italian neighborhood.  But being Sunday, and the neighborhood still being Italian and Catholic, as it was when we lived there, the market where my mother shopped was closed, as well as my brother’s favorite Italian restaurant.  We settled for a dimly-it, nearly empty joint with so-so fare.  But my brother acted as though it were a five-star.  I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember his graciousness toward the waiters, his hearty consumption of everything on his plate, his proclaiming it all excellent.  I used that trick with my step-kids when they were small and hungry and cranky.  When he does that, plowing past hints of disgruntlement, I feel grateful and touched and also a little sad.   

I remember another afternoon at the hospital.  My brother had driven four hours from Connecticut in the middle of his work-week to take me to a chemo infusion.  A lawyer, he had a case coming to trial, so he was planning to drive me back to the Cape and then turn around and head back to New York City that night.  As I drifted to sleep during the infusion, he sat beside me typing madly on his computer.  When the volunteers came around offering sandwiches and soup, he accepted with great enthusiasm, taking time with his choice.  And when the oncologist came in to tell me that my red blood cell count was too low, that I’d need a blood transfusion, and that we’d be there for several more hours, I remember looking over to Andy with a sinking feeling.  He glanced up from his computer, grinned, and gave me two thumbs up, as though it were the best news we could have.  He stayed on the Cape that night, got up at 5 am to drive back to the city. 

My brother is not a Pollyanna (I don't think a lawyer can be).  I see his attitude as a conscious act of will, a resistance to pettiness and ingratitude.  He grew up with the same dark-dwelling father as I did.  He knows the consequences of viewing life as perpetual suffering, which was my father’s mantra.  I recognize that lingering too much in the valley of the shadow is unhealthy for me, too.  But shunning the valley isn’t an option either; at that edge between dark and light is the habitat of poetry.  And a cancer diagnosis lands you squarely in that ecotone, that mixed-up thicket, life on one side, death on the other. I don’t find reading Gubar’s writing about her fears, her experience of the dark night disturbing, even though the thought of my cancer coming back in a terminal stage is my greatest fear.  In fact, I find her words strangely reassuring.  I am grateful to her for writing out of that place that I dread going.  I am grateful to hear that lonely voice, to know that it is the voice of a woman fully alive, fully present, even with her fears, no matter how short her remaining time on earth.  She still writes.  And her voice is one of many crowding my own dark nights.  There is an intense isolation to cancer and I imagine to any serious illness.  I felt it when I was undergoing treatment, and when I was recovering from treatment, and now, when my fears rear up, and I stay silent, because expressing fear might dismay my loved ones or make people uncomfortable.    

I saw that isolation in the tears leaking out of the harrowed eyes of Cloud, a man I know who is recovering from an excruciating ordeal of treatment for lymphoma that had morphed into leukemia.  He sat with us at the kava bar the other night, and told us about what he’d been through.  He held himself stiffly, as if he were looking out from some kind of straight jacket we couldn’t see.  His voice didn’t break or falter; at one point the tears just trailed their slow way down the landscape of his face, like trickles of water across an arid plateau.  There must be so many tears in there, pushing against his skin, a whole aquifer.  I saw him the next day buying produce at the farmer’s market, out in the daylight, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, just like anyone.  Perhaps all we need is for someone to bear witness, in the time it takes to converse over kava or tea.  To really mean it when we ask “How are you doing?”  To really mean we are willing to hear the truth.  Perhaps that’s enough for the isolating shadows to pull back from our feet.

After cancer, the body is one big shadow-trigger.  Every ache, every twinge.  I tweaked a nerve in my lower back last Wednesday.  My hip went into spasm right before a yoga class.  I spent that hour and a half with tears not leaking but pouring down my face.  I couldn’t bend forward to grasp my ankles.  I couldn’t do boat pose or canoe.  Even lying flat on my back in corpse hurt.  I felt damned sorry for myself.  A couple days later, I asked Craig to massage my sacrum.  I bent forward grasping the edge of a table, stretching my back out.  As he worked his thumbs into the muscles along my spine, I started sobbing.  A well of terror and grief -- the unsaid -- gushed from that place my body, the place that holds up my spine, my base, my bedrock. 

Sometimes out of the blue I turn to Craig and blurt, “I still can’t believe I had cancer.”  Even the word cancer feels dissociated from me, blank and white-washed and impotent. 

Once, my mother broke a glass in the kitchen sink, while washing dishes, and a splinter imbedded deep in her knuckle.  She didn’t know it was in there.  The cut healed, but the knuckle continued to throb.  In my memory, I see her holding the thumb as the splinter breaks out and emerges.  A tiny glittering piece of shrapnel, a hidden pain made suddenly visible.

I see why my childhood Catholicism is effective.  If you believe that this earth is a temporary dwelling place, that our real home is elsewhere, then it’s easier to let it go.  It’s easier to either dwell on life as suffering, as my father did, or to live only for the moment, only for the light:  “life is short,” “carpe diem” and all that jazz.  If this is our true home, what does it mean, this short time we have here?  Reproduction?  Leaving a legacy?  Making a name?  Me, I don’t know what’s on the other side. I trust it’s the right place to be, whether another world, or absorption into this one, body into earth into water into breath into molecule.  And here, right now, is the right place to be, at this green plastic table. Over the years, I’ve heard my optimist brother quote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” the villanelle by Dylan Thomas:  “Rage against the dying of the light.”  It's not about going gentle, for me, but fiercely awake.  “The darkness around us is deep,” wrote another poet, William Stafford.  To be willing to look that into the darkness without flinching, and to tell of it, as Susan Gubar does, is an act of courage, and a gift.  “I have been here,” I imagine she tells us, in that place you fear.  "It is not what you think.  It a road, and it is the same road we all travel."

The most beautiful thing is this morning is the play between sunlight and shadows on these leaves.   A worse thing than mortality, than a dark night, than insomnia, is to be here, in this place, right now, alive, yet not fully awake.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Trouble and Wind, Please Be Kind

God’s gonna trouble the waters.

After two weeks of benign winds, the heavy trades are back, and last night, after they troubled my sleep and needled me awake, I slept on the futon couch in my writing room, which is on the leeward side of the house.  The angle of the futon couch (I didn’t bother to flatten it into a bed) is a wide “V” and gravity pulls me into the crease, so it’s a little like a hammock, but rigid.  Lying here, I can see the sky now, at 6:00 am, the ironwoods tossing against a strange purplish gray dawn.  The air is filled with mist.  I know because I wandered outside a few minutes ago to make sure someone had remembered to close the chicken’s coop door last night.  The wind did.  The chickens were locked out.  The old rooster Wally’s been crowing for an hour, distressed, and the geese have been shrieking all night, lined up below the grass clump where one of the females has taken to nesting, clamoring as if their noise could bring her out.  But once a bird gets broody, nothing, not hunger or thirst, will dislodge her.

If the trade winds are gods (and there are many arguments I can put forth that they are), then when they wake me, perhaps it is because I am made of mostly water.  I lie there, listening, anxiety building, like pressure in my kombucha bottles.  Bubbles from deep below the god-troubled surface.  A therapist would say I take on the troubles of others.  My high school chemistry teacher wrote in my senior yearbook:  Some people were born to bear the trouble of others on their shoulders; may your shoulders be strong.  When the wind blows strong, I am water reflecting one of those plants bending low on its slender stalk, leaves ripped off my branchlets.  I am the beet seedling whipped one way, then the other, as the wind clocks around, until the stem just snaps.  And I am the lamb.      

The lamb our young friend Jess brought down finally rests quietly in the pasture, a little apart from the others.  Jess nursed the orphan at her house for months.  It slept in Jess’s bed sometimes, but mostly in a dog kennel in a little fenced paddock in her backyard.  It was a rough day for the lamb yesterday, suddenly confronted with a flock of sheep, a field of tall grass, and no bottle.  She kept looking for her fellow humans.  The lamb had never looked into a mirror.  It must have felt brutal, sudden.  Trouble befallen her.  She kept escaping through the de-activated electric fence all afternoon, running toward whoever was crossing the lawn.  I’d go to her, hug her, rub her down, and guide her back under the wire.  She seemed briefly appeased, and would run back to the flock, only to escape again. Farmer Ralph scolded me.  “She’ll never learn she’s a sheep if you keep coddling her.”  He even tried to drive her off the lawn with the riding mower, which might have been comical were I a different person, if I didn’t identify with that lamb’s need (I know, I’m supposed to be a biologist).  I screamed at him until he stopped. 

The trade wind screams over the land, bangs against the house walls, whistles through the windows, blows placemats off the table on the lanai, knocks down the candlestick and salt shaker.  There’s a song Craig likes, about autumn’s “bully winds,” how they “did rub their faces in the snow.”  That sounds gentle, like shaggy horses burying their muzzles in a drift, but this wind is not gentle; gusting at nearly 40, it’s trouble.

Remember that song “Trouble” by Cat Stevens?  I woke up on the futon couch thinking about it.  I like the irrational things the song asks of trouble:  “Trouble please be kind.” And “Trouble, won’t you be fair.”  The song was written, apparently, when Stevens was struggling to survive from tuberculosis.  He thought he would die, so he addressed his disease directly.  Did it listen and back off?

I know the futility and yet the drive to talk to the wind, to a disease, to trouble.  Last night, in our weekly poem exchange, my friend Erin wrote of learning about the suicide of a former student.  “Take a moment to send me some peace,” she asked.  And Jess dropped off that orphan lamb because she was flying out today to see her grandmother, who’s very ill.  “Take care of my lamb,” she asked.  Her grandma had breast cancer years ago, and it came back.  Of course that kind of news always troubles my waters.

And today, I am thinking about even larger troubles, the troubled earth itself.  I am preparing to talk to someone at Canadian broadcasting about my book, which in part recounts the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which troubled the waters in a big and lasting way almost 25 years ago.  It killed nearly half of the small population of orcas I was studying back then.  The book is their story.  Now, the oil industry is proposing to build a pipeline to the BC coast to unload dirty tar sands oil into tankers twice the size of the Exxon Valdez, to ply this toxic cargo up and down Queen Charlotte strait, home to orcas, and salmon, and jellyfish, and seals, and hundreds of other creatures. As I think about this, I suddenly feel the place within my own body, which itself is scarred and compromised by a form of clean-up called chemotherapy and radiation.  A place I love still and call home despite its grave injuries, its altered face.

I wrote this poem about the lamb, and I don’t know, maybe it says something about all of these troubles, and the impulse to take them in (not on).  Poet Mary Ruefle writes that “poetry happens when one lowers their voice.”  Or raises it.  “But the prayer of the lowered register no longer has a chance of being heard, has abandoned that chance – ‘given up,’ we say – yet retains the desire to speak, and I think these are the prayers addressed to god, who has become a singular absence; there is no one in the next seat; the ether becomes an ear.”  We become ears and bodies to one another.  We listen.  We embody.  We bear.  We pray to a god called trade wind, or scar, or as Erin’s poem title puts it “up there toward a winter sky.”

May our shoulders be strong.  But may our hearts be stronger.

2.3.2013 Prayer

Jess brought down the lamb
this morning, the orphan, she’d
shorn, shampooed her white coat
so it bristled away from her skin
like an old marine’s brush-cut,
spruced as though for church, and
it’s true, it was Sunday. Pink showed
through the sparse hairs at her ears
and underbelly, at the nascent
udder, nipples, she was used to
the bottle, the nuzzle against
Jess’s neck, now she nibbles
the kamani, dead electric fence
wire, testing everything for a live
current. She lingered, Jess, reluctant
to leave the lamb she’d nursed,
half-orphan herself, father found
dead in his truck at his favorite haunt,
old sugar cane railbed along the coast
at Mahukona last fall, his heart
given out, given over.  He wanted to be
tossed into the ocean. Jess put up
a cross on the cliff edge and someone
pushed it off, and now, she says,
you see it bumping into the stones,
in and out of sight, an apparition,
just like he wanted. She lives in
his house, painted the kitchen plum,
works at Holy Bakery rolling out
pie crusts.  She brought down the lamb,
collared, leashed, and now she bleats,
bumping into the other sheep, the fence,
perplexed. What am I? With the yearlings,
she ducks the wire, wanders on the lawn,
and the farmer smacks her rump, yells, go on,
you’re a sheep. The flock grazes in
the lower pasture, sometimes nickering
to call her down, but she won’t come,
she lies alone under the ironwood. 
And I sit here listening to her incessant
keening, but doing nothing because
they don’t understand trouble, do they,
not like us, they are only animals.