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.