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.

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