Friday, February 21, 2014

"And now, we walk."

"Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth." ~ Rumi

Life hits hard sometimes, doesn't it? Life will always be a magical, horrible blend of tragedy, beauty, and happenstance--your dog dies, your wife leaves you, your father has a heart-attack, your friend overdoses on heroin--but still you somehow stumble into perfect moments of joy, again and again, and with open heart, take it all in, and you laugh, again and again, even when, especially when, life insists on tears. An ongoing, constant unraveling, and then a tidying up. Expansion and contraction. It can be so difficult to trust the rhythm, and all to easy to feel overwhelmed by it, as if things are totally beyond your control. And maybe they are, right? What do we know, anyway? What's there to trust, after all?

If there's one thing we can expect out of life, it's the unexpected. Cancer? Yeah, that happens. A lot. Do I need to remind you of the statistics? I don't think so. What good will that do? Does it matter? It just happens. 

And when it happens, when you’re hit with an unexpected cancer diagnosis (is there any other kind?), of course you imagine the worst: stage four, metastatic, and only months, if that, to live, precipitating desperate last-ditch efforts to salvage hope, through chemo and radiation that burn and tear into any remaining healthy cells and tissue. Hooked up to an IV drip, drip, drip, you’ll eventually lose your hair, clumps at a time, fight back nausea, beg for mercy. People will give you the death-scan, the once-over, top to bottom, to see if you look like you're dying. Does she look a little grey to you? You shave your head in an act of defiance, and summon your warrior girl spirit. Your friends will give you scarf after scarf, but you are bared, now, down to your raw elements, the wretched caverns that once existed to hide the tremulous shifting shards of doubt and dread, flooded out, then emptied of secrets, all sun-bleached now, so no, but thank you. They bring you food, which you can’t keep down. Tell you that you're beautiful, still. And throughout it all, you’ll tell jokes, smile, find your grace, try to inhabit the light: this is your fight, and you’ll blaze in that darkness, a real star, before fading into nothing.

Slowly, but surely, you begin to imagine a different scenario, and line-by-line, page-by-page, you begin to write your own story.

There’s another cancer, after all; there always is. And it belongs to you.

You’ve imagined everything you will miss, everything you won’t be able to do. You look at your children, and you wonder if you will be there to see them graduate from college, get married, or not, discover, do what they love, in no particular order. The emptiness in your arms, the pull and ache where you once held them close, feels lonelier still as you imagine not being around to hold your grandchildren, and watch your children come back to you. The uncertainty of what the next day will bring weighs heavily, a constant disturbance in your peripheral vision, oh yeah, that, to render you speechless and immobile throughout the day, and blanket you with a thick, depressive darkness at night.  So when you gradually realize that it will be better that you first imagined, that the story isn’t written yet, and not so airtight, that it won’t be as bad, those small cracks start to let in some light, and it seeps into your deepest corners and awakens your warrior girl spirit, and you find a strength in you that you didn’t know existed, and it pushes you out the door, takes you by the hand, and says, “And now, we walk.

It's all we can do, after all.  Somewhere, we come to realize that with every step, we write our own stories, even when another hand has been at work, meddling with how we thought things would go. Is there any other way for it to unfold? Those unexpected potholes, delays, disruptions, and worse, there's always something worse: this we can count on. What matters is how we navigate, respond, and reclaim authorship over our own stories, ownership of our lives, especially when they've been hijacked, when things feel out of control. The wind blows hard at times, pushing us off course. And thank god for that. After all, what would we do if not for the occasional nudge off course? How else would we grow? What would we do without those often unexpected, slightly obscured opportunities to explore unchartered territory, that rise up out of the destruction, or suddenly appear in the glinting, illuminated edges, to pull us out of our pain? To keep the lamp lit, help us climb down into those dark, dusty, deeper corners of ourselves, bring them to the surface, to breathe in fresh air? I say, don't be afraid of the unknown: grab the damn rudder, reset your sails, and let the wind carry you where you want to go.  When there's nothing else to rely on, count on that.

"I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter 'till they bloom, 'til you yourself burst into bloom." ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Today is World Cancer Day. Glad to be here.

Glad to be wrestling with so much change and transition, the push and pull of Life as it continues to flip things on end and inside out, reminding me to return, always, to my heart. Glad to be in that precarious spot, that in-between, with forward motion temporarily arrested, and a tangle of suspended, possible destinations ahead, just beyond the giant leap across the abyss. Glad to be readying this jump, even if I can't see what's next. I'm pretty good at walking around in the dark. What's difficult is the going alone. It's what I've always done, of course, but I'm tired of it, and wouldn't mind some company. But glad, still, to be strong enough to go it alone for as long as I need to.

I suppose, too, I am missing my dog, whom we had to put down just before Thanksgiving. But I can't even begin to write about her, or I'll come completely unhinged and cry and have to seek solace in my cat, who has no use for crybabies. Gah.

It's strange how everything feels different when your dog dies. The cat looks for her everywhere, her low, drawn-out, plaintive, pathetic yowls echoing from all over the house, which feels by turn achingly empty and painstakingly filled with her spirit. Outside, the squirrels have multiplied. And the birds have started calling to me, but I, with my blindside in full swing, have taken little notice, save for the ridiculous amounts of birdseed they seem to go through every week.

Today is different. Today, I listen.

Circling around the house and back again, bringing armloads of wood to the deck, to fill both the wood box and the pockets of anxious cold that have opened up just below my heart, I hear them, from branches high and bare, letting me know.

As I fill the feeders, a fat gray squirrel hops onto the top of the picnic table to grab and nibble a rice cake, just one stale snack of many I had left in a pile atop this altar of sorts this morning. Rotting, falling apart piece by piece to herald our decay, the table, much like a fallen tree, is slowly being reclaimed by the earth. A feast for decomposers, its green, mossy, scarred veneer peels off in layers to reveal the raw materials at its core, a veritable city of industriousness ensuring the inevitability of constant change.  Everyday, a tiny little change, or a big one: an entire board peels off, the edges soften, the table sinks ever so slowly into the earth below. We're coming for you.

Tracks scurry and scatter across snow to our winter compost pile, a mix of Christmas greens, egg shells, and citrus peels and skins. I dump a bucket of ash from the woodstove atop bounding rabbit tracks, and the delicate, careful steps of our cat, which belie her copious fluff and fat.

The birds have discovered the fresh seed, and slowly return to the feeders. Male cardinals pop red against backdrops of pine and snow, while their mates, made ever more beautiful by the understated humility of their display, beg a little more effort from the watcher: harder to see, but so much more rewarding once they're found. Glad for the chance to watch them hide, then reveal themselves--nothing to prove. The chickadees fear not; unassuming, bold, friendly, they regard me with a tilt to the head as I lug past with the empty bucket.

Even after last night's frosting, the trees reach out, limbs bared, ready to catch tonight's snow. More, more. Skies gray and muted, a quiet hush has descended over the awakening trees, the fields of stubby cornstalks, even the birds, who know, as they always know, to move deliberately, and above all else, when things get squirrelly, to listen.