Clear Skies, Cancer, Boxes of Chocolates

rain

I want it to rain. Rain, rain, rain, steady hard rain with the power to wash the hot, smoke-filled air and put a damper on the hungry forest fires raging out of control all around.

But then, I often want a lot that is beyond my control.

Just a few short months ago my doctor told me things were looking so good that I didn’t need to worry about resuming chemo until the fall. And just as I’d written my enthusiasm and joy about this amazing news, we learned that our niece had died of her cancer, and that our good friend’s cancer had gone on a massive offensive, progressing to where it had not been in many years, and later, that another friend who lives with chronic debilitating pain was suffering a turn for the worse.

I never did publish that post. It seemed gloating, self-absorbed. But then a short five or six weeks later, I got my own bit of bitter news—some suspicious pain, a reminder that I never did finish treatment back in March, some worrying test results, and an all-new treatment schedule of my own, one that was definitely going to interfere with my enthusiastic summer plans. No big surprise, but still, my husband and I sat down at the kitchen table and wept.

The good news was that we were going with a different drug, one that carried no risk of the horrible neuropathy and systemic pain I experienced in February, one that was going to be “virtually impossible to have a severe allergic reaction to.” This was calming, hopeful, gratitude-producing information.

Still, it is a chemotherapy, medicine on a mission to kill cells both problematic and essential. I tend to be both optimistic and anxious, sometimes in equal parts, sometimes in swings of extremes, but I set out for my first treatment relatively tilted toward optimism. It went well. Until two days later, when I again found myself weeping and cursing both the universe and our not-very-progressive state of cancer treatments. I spent nearly the entire time between my first and second treatment feeling miserable in old familiar and entirely news ways. And tonight, at 4AM two days into this most recent cycle, I’m insomniac (thanks to side-effect medications), and waiting desperately for rain.

Life, eventually for most of us, turns out not to be the proverbial box of chocolates Forest Gump’s mother promised after all. It has far too many bitter, not-at-all chocolate pieces, bad-tasting surprises covered in very bitter-tasting chocolate look-alike.

Still, through the heat this past week, I found sweetness alongside bitterness again too. My daughter has been wanting to accompany me to treatment for a long time now, and had the day off this time. She’s just finishing a move, and carrying sorrow and struggle of her own, but she put her curly hair up, and put on a bright yellow dress, and looking like the original blossom of beauty, drew smiles by the dozen walking through the halls of the cancer clinic with me. She held my hand as they started the drip, and we chatted, and I felt loved. The treatment was the most stream-lined ever, record-breaking for me. Not a hitch, in and out in an hour.

Another dear friend, highly skilled with tiny strategically-placed needles, offered instant nausea and pain relief and an amazing endorphin bath for my tears the next day. I felt loved. Another friend, by way of the music she makes, offered her version of prayer. I felt loved. Another offered steaks for the boys and birthday cake for two of us. I felt loved. Another yet is planning an intimate potluck birthday get-together to include a few other friends and our now-grown children. I feel loved. My sister, dropping in with a lovely plate of cooling watermelon in bite-sized juicy delights, had set a picture of me as her phone wallpaper. “I was having a moment,” she told me. I felt loved. My mom called to see what goodies she could cook up for us: Baked ribs for my husband, sugar-free apple-crisp for me, and who knows what else she’ll whip up. I felt loved. She’s 80, which is how long I plan to stick around in spite of the odds against me. Others texted and called, offering to come visit, or chat by phone, which I will joyfully accept with every significant return of energy I experience, I promise.

My youngest son, in excruciating back pain over the past month, picked me up from my needling friend’s place yesterday, and elicited the same enthusiastic looks and smiles as had my daughter’s sunflower-yellow dress the day before. No, it wasn’t a yellow dress, though it may have been as much his shorts and shirt as his charming grin. My son from California, the one who will be wearing his outstanding laugh and energy and medical mind, is coming for a visit, and will be here for his sister’s party, and mine, and his grandma’s, and just hang out with all of us.

I feel loved.

I have new and better chemo side-effect management pills this round, so should be much better by today’s end. Better yet, I get this week off treatment entirely. I’ll get to go to my daughter’s birthday party, and I’ll get to go to my own, and I’ll get to hang out with the kids. Love, like light on a horizon, or stars in a dark desert sky, beckons.

It may not be exactly the summer I planned, but I’m going to be hopeful the treatment schedule will accommodate at least one traditional highlight for me: Four days of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, for which we always go to great lengths to get tickets for. Many favorites coming this year: Angus and Julia Stone, Brandi Carlile, Danny Michel, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Harry Manx, Sinead O’Conner.

So alongside the box of imitation-chocolate covered bitter misery, there have been genuine chocolate surprises. And, from the weather experts yesterday, a promise of rain, lots of rain, cooler clearer air. I’m counting on them.

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Full Moons, Dirty Feet, Blunt Hammers

valley trailAugust is the most delicious month. I can taste it, despite the activity of gremlins in my genes and the giant tangles of disillusionment and uncertainty that have settled in my bones.

August is perfection, abundance, glorious maturity. I have no words for the magic of the canopy of leaves over the path I walk; all I know is that I see the miraculous more easily at this time of year than at any other. The rest—the early morning rush of trying to untangle yesterday’s problems, the late night flow of sorrow over the day’s events—it’s all there, but August, with its strong and hopeful song, has a way of expanding the moment to make room for all of it, with little effort on my part.

Dead centre in the glory of summer, hitting me like a large blunt hammer, I see in my friend
the crippling effects of her multiple sclerosis, and in another (and in the mirror) the fatigue
and fear that laces cancer treatment and oncology visits and statistics that scream defeat and recurrence. In my body, I feel the effects of confused and bruised mitochondria, hungry cells. But for now, there is August. August with its overgrown gardens and fresh greens in abundance. With its built-in gratitude. With its books. (The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton, for those of you with a hungry, science-minded streak, curious about FF hill 2014why all your efforts of positive thinking and movement toward your goals still haven’t built a solid grate over the deep hole you sometimes fall into.) August with its muddy, sweaty feet, with its outdoor music powerful enough to get thousands of us dancing barefoot under the full moon on our river valley hill.

The Alchemist

My daughter, looking a little vulnerable to my maternal eye, greeted me with a hug despite my warnings about a nasty virus I’d given refuge for the past week. We’d met for a bite to eat before the show, and talked a little about the mountain weighing heavily upon her, and for a moment I feared her sorrow might take away from her evening. But an hour later, less than thirty seconds into the show, she reached her arm around me to squeeze my shoulder. I squeezed her hand in response, she smiled widely, and then Brandi Carlile, as always, gave us her soul.

How do I describe the experience of her voice and guitar-playing and foot-stomping alongside the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra? I thought nothing would top the acoustic experience she gave us last year, but I was wrong. Almost immediately, her honesty tapped into something deep inside, and she seemed more grown-up somehow, and then she was no longer just singing, she was soaring miles above an entire symphony orchestra. She takes you with her, and then she drops you and you’re surfing a giant ocean swell about to break on the shore, and she’s laughing, and pouring out all this love, her voice magically soothing one minute and then shredding both the song and your heart in the next, and it’s much more than entertainment.

It’s wild, and primal, and a deeply spiritual ride.

With or without amplified sound (their unplugged acoustic piece sent chills down my back again), and with or without the twins’ voices and guitars, and with or without the entire symphony orchestra, she filled the auditorium and those of us present to overflowing. She can out-sing a thousand cellos, and she did, and I just have to put my thank-you out there to the universe. We’re born for connection and joy; they are deeply spiritual and sacred experiences.

Nights like these change nothing, and yet in deep unseen ways, they change everything again.

Joy Beneath the Ruins

Our lives are ennui and insomnia and alarm clocks and endless contradictions. They are caffeine and bills and cortisone. They are machines that don’t work, and relationships that challenge, ever-hungry chequing accounts and equally hungry souls. They are ever-more demanding jobs and ever-more fatigued bodies, and they are deception, messes the scale of Fukushima, which is still, I learned this morning, seeping a daily 300 tons of radioactive water into the wonder and gift that is the Pacific Ocean.

So what else is there to do, but try to transcend it all, regularly and often? And what better way to do this than through music and love and beauty and play? These are tried and true modulators of stress hormones and blood pressure, boosters of endorphins and dopamine and oxytocin and all things gold. They help us integrate the shards of our dreams and make a semblance of peace with the ruins we carry around at our core.

This is why I continue to fight for my pass to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

At Gallagher Park, sun and fresh air and beauty are abundant, as are smiling faces and friends and apple cider. But most abundant is the music, music with the ability to split us open and penetrate past the rubble of our crumbled castles and down to the existential joy still there beneath the weight of the years.

The sounds coming from the mouths of the artists and at the command of their fingers on instruments of all kinds drew smiles and shouts of surprise and joy. Some of it, as in the case of LP’s stunning vibrato, and John Butler’s equally stunning guitar skill, was literally jaw-dropping.  Jam sessions on stages crowded with talent willing to risk themselves by giving in to the current infused energy into our muscles and bones and cells as we synchronized with the sounds and rhythms and each other.

Some of it, like Bruce Cockburn, was deeply integrating, calming, comforting. With him, we swam deeply in an ocean of beauty and felt no need to come up for air, as he evoked images of mercy, of the rose above the sky, the light behind the sun, a story beyond that which we see and understand in this moment.

We walked home late that night over the footbridge crossing the river under a starry sky, most of us quiet, calm, deeply nourished, warmed by dopamine, reset in some primal way.

But come up for the air of the quotidian we must, eventually, though hopefully, after the initial shock of adjustment, we come up a little more integrated, a little more able to see our way back to the existential joy still there, beneath the ruins.sunflower

Freedom to Read Week

jeff and chris hedges
It was an evening I’ll remember for a long time. First, randomly, in one of those lovely unwrapped little surprises the universe just drops in our laps, the man of the evening walked up to us in the lineup (we arrived very early), grinned, allowed me to swoon ecstatically for a second, and snap a photo. He then asked directions and moved on. Young again for a moment, that’s how I felt coming unexpectedly face-to-face with someone who has so often profoundly inspired and moved me.

It was an Edmonton Public Library event held at the University of Alberta, to kick off Freedom to Read Week—many, many thanks to them!!–and our guest was Chris Hedges.

At the podium, he stood and spoke to us, apparently not in need of any notes, just spoke. Brilliantly, about dark things like working class hopelessness and the erosion of civil liberties, about our broken electoral politics and our slide into totalitarian capitalism—but he did it with hope and clarity and passion, and a dash of defiance.

He knows what he knows, and he knows it well. He knows what we need to do to protect what is truest and best about human beings. He knows about the ways good returns good, about the futility of violence and greed, about what he witnessed for decades as a New York Times journalist covering conflicts and rebellions and uprisings the world over, about the inaccurate picture of events we come to believe as true when we stop reading and rely instead on television sound-bites, about the decisions made far from the eye of the public, about the unwritten rule of the corporate media not to alienate too deeply the hand that feeds.

Though he has been criticized for being angry in his writings, I saw no anger, only sorrow alongside the hope, and the soul of an honest human being.

When he was finished, we stood and applauded and some of us wept: the ovation had the flavour of ovations we give the rock stars of our youth. There was simply something about his words and being that had the most powerful ring of truth, something that resonated deeply and made us feel infinitely more alive than we did coming in a few hours earlier.

 

illusion

cruel, bone-chilling -35 degree winds
warm and safe in here
hot tea in my hands
soft support under my body
surrounded by pretty
the sound of the furnace
the pantry full

in the news: Edmonton’s Hope Mission
our city’s several thousand men and women without a place to call home
a handful of agencies providing plastic vinyl-covered mattresses
for a night
a bowl of soup
shelter, for a little while, from the killing cold

a universe unknown, impossibly far away,
or so it seems
in truth, a single hard fall away

I have a disagreement with you who refuse to acknowledge this:
mental illness
addiction
disability
bank accounts flushed away
any number of falls from good fortune—I am not immune
you are not immune

it is hubris, and infinitely dangerous
to our spirits
to claim we built our little worlds on our own,
that they are indestructible

Through the Window; In Search of Morning

Outside the window, except for a few lights on the street below and in the buildings around me, it’s black. Large frosty clouds of exhaust from rooftops and cars passing by break up the blackness just a little. Several bulky-looking pedestrians pass by, walking quickly despite their bulk; one is running. Cars move slowly, as though they’re not quite thawed, and as though their grip on the road can’t be trusted.

Inside, the forced air heating my space wakes the wind chimes in the window, producing the quietest of melodies, and the memory of summer. The brightness of the computer screen tells my brain it is morning, time to leave behind the consciousness of the night. It also tells me that wind-chill values are below minus 40 degrees, and that frostbite can occur in minutes.

It’s a new day. And though we take yesterday with us, like mud on our boots after a muddy trail, it is new. I resolve to stay rooted and present and engaged, through and with and despite the mud on my boots.