Antidote to the Night

Night. Or early morning. Brain chatter. All that must be done, all that begs to be resolved, all that has been taken in, all that must be faced, all that is yet unknown. Heaviness. The strong current of fear.

Sometimes though, this: Deep connection with the self—mind, body, soul, breath. Deep connection with another. Deep connection with a fictional character, a story, a poem. Laughter. The bright light of another’s love or gratitude. Her honest naked truth, her grief, her joy. His. Yours. Understanding. Feeling heard. Acceptance. Taking a step or two out of the jungle you’ve been lost in. Turning your face toward the bright, bright light of the sun.

Nights that follow just might begin to feel different, legs once again melting into sheets, ears once again tuned in to the thrumming of the universe. Sleep, longer and deeper, strength and balance and gratitude restored.

 

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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

Rain, New Life

new growth 2I saw it in her face the second I saw her today—heartbreak. I remember a day exactly a month ago when she’d been on my mind all day. I remember staring out my sixth floor window that day, past the large building that obstructs much of my view of the street below, through the space between buildings, at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre below.

We were one day away from May then, and it was snowing. I was warm and comfortable in my little cave, but imagining those lying in the beds across the street, those in need of palliative or hospice care, those whose bodies have in some way betrayed them, I was uncomfortable too—my friend was at another hospital that morning, the Cross Cancer Institute, for yet another follow-up scan. I’d offered to accompany her, but like me, she mostly prefers to make these trips alone.

Images of my sojourn at the Cross two years ago made their inevitable march through my mind: Beautiful young women with full heads of hair just beginning their foray into the terrifying world of treatment. Young children with not a strand left on their heads. Pale and frail and thin men, women and children who had been all but defeated, and who looked resigned to feeling betrayed.

The mere thought of the place lands in my consciousness like a meteor, always. We are, in part as a result of modern medicine’s promise to keep death at bay indefinitely, a death-phobic culture, true. But it is more than that. Wanting to live is a fact of being human. Wanting to remain present in the body to those we love is powerful. So is the desire to live well. But the amazing new interventions that we gratefully chase in our desperation to buy some grace and time, can, little by little over time, should our cancers return, take from us our autonomy, vitality, comfort, dignity.

These are the things we think about sometimes, those of us who have been inducted into the world of cancer. We work, and we play, and we eat and laugh and dance with gratitude, but we are also very aware that sweetness is ephemeral.

We know that it is more important to live well than to live forever, but we fear we may not always be able to live well, and that we may be nowhere near ready to say good-bye when our bodies determine we must. We notice life everywhere, babies and vibrantly bright green poking through where months and months of snow and ice have finally melted. And this heightened awareness of life’s sweetness comes with a heightened awareness of the grim reaper hiding in the shadows.

We think about these things not because we’re guilty of choosing negative thinking over positive, but because we must, because the scare we got was enormous, because our cancer or chemo-rattled mitochondria remind us as often as our inboxes alert us to new email that we have been altered. This can be a very deep hole to climb out of, and it can leave us a little vulnerable in other areas of our lives.

This is what I saw in my friend’s face today—her vulnerability, but with some kind of new crushing blow clearly added to it. When she was diagnosed they’d told her it was too late for chemo, it was metastatic and too far gone, to which she responded by taking matters into her own hands, which is another story for another day.

But two weeks ago when the results of her scan returned, she learned she has no active cancer sites left in her body. All’s well that ends well, right? Not always as quickly as that, not from what I’ve observed and experienced. For my friend, the emotional punch of being told it was hopeless remains active, and the million receptors for hormones that once empowered and energized her remain hungry. And now, a new layer of grief: her engagement has ended. She knows it was probably inevitable, but still—saying good-bye to a best friend from this vulnerable place is almost impossible for me to imagine.

We walked out into a spring downpour after our visit, no jackets, our bare feet in bare little summer shoes, but the sound and smell of the rain was beautiful and soothing to me somehow, and carried a little hope that it might, with a little time, wash away some of what has died in my friend and feed new life again. I’m not sure she felt it just yet, but she will, I know she will. There are many ways to be loved, and many ways to regain strength.

Knocked Down, But Not For Long

beach 2You, my friend, have been knocked down by a giant wave, a hard and cold one that stole much, but you can start moving again. I know this, even if it’s only a crawl for now, and the second you begin, you will feel stronger and more optimistic. You’ve only temporarily forgotten that it’s okay to take risks, but you have, deep within, a healer that remembers. Moving and tasting new experiences aren’t things we ever forget how to do, not fully. Trying and failing is in our genes; it’s how we learn everything.

And while sitting on the shoreline taking stock and getting your bearings for a while serves a purpose, there is no point in thinking too long and hard about which single action will be safest and most sure to fix that something you desperately want fixed. We find our way and strength again by roving, tasting, trying, and failing. There is no other way to make it to the burial ground we need to find, no other way to gather the ingredients we’ll need to nourish a new plot of soil in which to grow new dreams.

What we sometimes temporarily forget is this: trying new things doesn’t have to translate into a permanent new hobby. Creative work doesn’t have to be marketable to be therapeutic. Work doesn’t have to come with a big paycheck to be meaningful and valuable. Courses don’t have to lead to certification to be beneficial. Meeting new people doesn’t have to replace old friends. Movement doesn’t have to be pain-free to bring strength. All of these however, enrich and expand life. There is joy and strength to be found in a million things, even in the face of great loss.

There’s a reason they get us out of bed quickly after surgery: despite the accompanying pain, it gets blood and energy flowing again. Neither psychic nor physical muscle can develop the strength it needs to withstand the next wave while we lie there with the old injury.

So cry, yes, but don’t forget to keep moving. Swim in some really great music. Sing along or dance if you can. Create something. Hold a baby. Cook, write, paint, plant some seeds. Play a game. Watch things that make you laugh. Meditate. Go for a walk or to a yoga class. Love somebody. Lose yourself in a great story. Volunteer to help someone. Try something completely new. Take the first step toward something, anything. Feel your pain, but don’t spend too much thinking about the how and why, just embrace it, and begin moving. All of these actions have at various times in the past effectively brought me back to health and balance. They will work for you too.

Anything and everything that can bring us out of our heads—out of the past and regret, out of the future and magical thinking—and rather into the present, is of inestimable value. Being present to the moment involves seeing, noticing, listening, paying close attention to things outside our heads. The color of another’s eyes, the fatigue in her voice, the changes in the room, the air, the crowd, what tastes good right now, what gives us energy, all of it. It involves paying close attention to what is, both that for which we’re grateful, and that which we need to mourn. Gratitude and mourning are not, by the way, mutually exclusive. Both are the antidote to fear.

We have, since the advent of pharmaceutical medicine, been conditioned to believe in magic bullet fixes for all that ails us, but there are no quick fixes for real healing, only the hard work of acceptance and remaining present to all of life. Nor are healing and strength and joy something we arrive at permanently. There’s always another wave, and balance is fluid, and requires muscle.

So stay at the shoreline for a short while, yes, but begin to ask yourself what small thing you can do today that will nurture and fortify you right now for the tasks of laying to rest dreams that have died, and of cultivating soil that will grow new ones. And then move, even if it’s only a couple of inches. It is, after all, spring.

Everyday, Cheap Antidepressants

It’s been a few days of working on projects-in-process, spinning my wheels, frustration. Of feeling inept, inadequate, insufficient, empty. Then: An argument, a mild disagreement really, with a family member. I hate these. They sink me to the bottom of the muddy pond that is my life some days. Neither of us meant to offend; we both offended, both felt offended.

The result of this very mild disagreement: I can’t bring myself to work on any of those projects-in-process. Nor can I bring myself to look for new projects. I can’t bring myself to do anything.

I have this thing though—have always had it, but since my little dance with cancer, even more so—today is what matters, right now. It’s all any of us ever have, and I want it to be good. I don’t want to cry over spilt milk, or buried pain, or my dead-and-gone ovaries (good riddance, they were malignant, but still, they used to give me wonderful little chemicals that made life sparkle). I don’t want to delay gratification or relief. I want to enjoy this moment. I need to get out, I decide.

So I contact a couple of friends; one of these efforts lands in their junk email. Nobody else seems to be available. I have a moment of panic: just me again, my little world, my ghosts? I don’t want to face them today, and I especially don’t want to face them alone.

So I start grasping. Lunch. I eat scrap of leftover steak and some cold roasted cauliflower from last night’s supper, and have a cup of coffee. Food and caffeine have some antidepressant properties, I discover again.

I take a Scrabble turn. (Yes, I’m still dabbling with that love affair, which began in earnest with my cancer treatment two years ago.) I’m losing this particular game by a lot; there are two tiles left in the bag. I stare and stare at the board, determined. And then I see it: BOUQUETS. On a triple, and it is, for 131 points, perhaps the nicest bingo I’ve ever played.

Then, a text message from my daughter: do you have time for a cup of tea? What was it I was trying to make headway with earlier? Nothing important, I decide. I walk to Elm Café, which I didn’t realize was a take-out place mostly without seating, but we sit on the hard backless metal stools at the counter meant to be used for the length of time it takes them to make a coffee, and talk. Conversation, and walking, don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise, are excellent antidepressants.

Essence

You’ve been knocked down, she told me, but you’re still you. The dragon has left its mark, altered you. You look different, you feel different, you think differently. Your strength has faltered. You have nearly been felled, and your light shines more dimly.

But you are still you at your core, and your light will shine brilliantly again. This is your task now: uncover your essence. Follow your bliss. Allow it to lead you, to blow at your back. Breathe it in, and allow it to fan the embers and burn away the residual darkness in a grand display of fireworks.

I’ve been trying, I tell her.

Ride on our wings for a while; we’ll help you, she tells me.

Thank you, you enchantress, you lovely conduit of healing words and hope, you queen of magical and exotic-sounding medicines. I will drink your elixir and do as you say.

Culture of Positivity

The room is bright, and feels like it can breathe. We talk, and within minutes, I know this: it is a space big enough for honesty. A space where it is okay to talk about what it means to be expected to paste on a smile and a good attitude during those times when reality is horrid. It is a space that understands the destructive side of stoicism.

The space exists because the woman seated in the chair opposite me knows just how well the body remembers. She understands that poorly digested and hurriedly and improperly stashed-away pain gives birth to ghosts in the night.

I go back a few years. Why this particular experience comes to mind, I have no idea: it is neither the most recent painful experience, nor the most traumatic, nor the most incompletely processed event I have in memory. Perhaps this is precisely why my mind chooses this one to remember just now: it is a safe one to revisit. In any case, I’ve gone back to an early visit to the Cross Cancer Institute. I am surrounded by smiling nurses and fellow cancer travelers, some of whom are chatting and laughing (likely thanks to the steroids they’ve been given with their treatment), but most of whom are dozing and appear to be oblivious to the beeping and background noise, the IV’s in their arms, the staring eyes of first-time visitors.

It’s my second visit here, and I’m still working hard at not seeing those whose hair has disappeared from their heads. I silently thank those wearing wigs; their choice softens my own still-fresh trauma just a little. I watch and wait. A man about ten or fifteen feet away from where I’m waiting is suddenly in some obviously serious trouble, having some kind of seizure. A Code Blue team rushes in. I try not to look.

I hear my name, and am shown my bed, poked, and hooked up to liquid-filled bags the staff wear protective gowns and gloves to handle. It will go directly into my veins. To save my life, but still.

But why are these treatments rooms so crowded, I silently protest. I don’t mean why literally, as in why aren’t we exactly winning the war on cancer, or why is there not enough money for a little more privacy, but rather, why in the sense of being resistant to the crowding. Now is not the time for vanity or pride, I know, but it could well have been a colleague or an ex-husband in the next chair or bed.  It seems wrong to be so exposed when there’s already so much stress and vulnerability.

The Ativan is helpful and lovely though, and my anxiety dissipates.

Then my head is hot, my chest is tight, my heart is racing, my lower back in painful spasms. I know what this is; I used to work in a hospital, I’ve seen allergic reactions. My husband has gone to get a little bite to eat, so I reach for the call button, which I knock off its perch. For what feels like an eternity I cannot find it swinging below me, nor can I find my voice to call someone. I persevere, find it, and am then quickly baptized in enormous doses of Benadryl.

When it subsides, I want to cry, because it was frightening and because I’m relieved, but they, the nursing staff, I quickly discover, don’t want me to cry. Really, really don’t want me to cry. They are justifiably eager to avoid distressing patients just inches away from me, and masterfully tamp down and chase my emotion into a closet. This irritates me enormously, but the Benadryl quickly makes me compliant. A very short time later they resume my chemo.

I have a Benadryl-infused nap, and then resume my Scrabble game.

Between turns I listen in on the conversation occurring behind the curtain two feet away from me, a conversation between two young lovers. I ache for their loss at their age, and wonder if the gorgeous red hair I’d noticed when she walked in was her own, and if not, whether she’s let her boyfriend see her without it yet. When I learn it’s not her own, and he hasn’t seen her without it, I am, having stubbornly refused to be caught without mine, comforted about my own vanity.

Seven hours later, closing the unit down, my husband announces the results of our endless Scrabble game, played, on my end, through a drug-induced fog. He won, achieving a new high score for himself, 427. I can be a bit of a sore loser even on good days; today I don’t even try not to be.

“Well aren’t you special,” I say.

“You could congratulate me,” he says.

“Well forgive me for not having the energy to celebrate today,” I say curtly, and then quickly wonder if I’m being unreasonable, or if his expectations of me at this moment might be a little high.

He takes a little while, but—perhaps because he loves me, or perhaps because he has to share a bed with me later—will come to understand my mood.

My nurse on the other hand, when I apologize for not being more cheerful, does nothing to validate the stress of the afternoon, simply tells me my attitude had been “a little off” today, and something about trying a little harder for a positive attitude.

This week, nearly two years later, in this sunny room that breathes and has made space for reality, this experience all but forgotten, I remember it fully, completely. Multiple and blunt blows to my person, both physical (in the form of the treatment and my reaction to it), and psychological (in the form of being silenced and then judged for what was deemed a bad attitude), were quickly and wrongly put out of sight for efficiency’s sake. And I’m struck by the difference between the dismissive and judgmental approach of my nurse that day, and the honoring and validating one here now. The latter has offered hope that perhaps it is not yet too late to properly process the many things my body remembers and currently carries around.

Might it be true that the injunction to smile in the face of cancer might not be the best after all? That it encourages repression of valid emotion? That it unjustly puts the responsibility of getting well entirely on the victim’s ability to muster the right attitude over a period of months or years of dealing with major stresses and losses? That it adds to the victim’s burden by asking an already-burdened body to simply store an entire series of traumatic events?

Having coffee with a fellow cancer victim yesterday, who like many of us has a resident darkness ready to whisper the worst in her ear, we talked about the value of realism. Positive thinking and faith are good—I’m not advocating ruminating on our darkest thoughts—but honesty alongside hope and cheer is essential, and friends who provide space for this are invaluable. Our culture of positive thinking has a dark side.

Honesty is the only way in which we can truly make peace with the losses, with facing our mortality.

And, in the face of (in my friend’s case) being told you will not survive your cancer (which she is in fact currently doing), are sadness or anger not infinitely more normal and intelligent responses than a perma-smile and forced perkiness? It is, in my mind, completely appropriate to be sad in the face of losing body parts and organs and once-taken-for-granted energy levels and pain-free functioning. It’s appropriate to be anxious and troubled in response to the suffering or death of fellow cancer victims. (One long-time friend died the week I was scheduled for my final treatment; the response of my oncologist was simply to say “oh, well, she did pretty well, lasted longer than average.”)

We’re a fix-it-quick, don’t-be-sad kind of society, I know, and I am at times as guilty of this impatience as anyone. But I have promised myself to make a little more space for what can’t really be fixed all that quickly, space for me, and for those around me. Our culture of positivity isn’t always helpful.