Serendipity

It was a morning for feeling needy and pathetic and nearly too proud to permit any kind of love directed my way. I’m still not used to operating at half-battery, and it can make me bristly. Feeling half-productive, half-fun, half-useful, half-decent, half-human can make me decide I’m utterly unworthy. Ahead of me was an afternoon of chemo, which of course was the reason for the bristles, but it also offered up an unlikely and happy little coincidence.

Before the serendipitous conversation could happen though, the one that generated the first genuine smile of the day, I tried befriending my misery by stepping into the role of observer, standing back from my emotions a little, trying simply to see them without judgment, and perhaps even switch the energy driving me to a more neutral and advanced part of my brain. Beneath the surface layer of self-reliance that was telling my husband I didn’t need him to accompany me to chemo, I soon saw several layers of anxiety—fear of being viewed as needy and weak, fear of the impact my being sick has had on what I have to offer as a partner in my marriage, and fear of things not going well on this day, fear of pain, fear of the future.

I’d gone out for a bit to return a poorly chosen bathmat and had a little time before my appointment, so I stopped for a cup of tea and watched this internal landscape of anxiety for a while. I didn’t judge it (anxiety is, under these circumstances, they tell me, completely normal), but I did give it the boot. Nothing personal, just tired of it for the moment. We’ll have tea again soon enough. Not judging is important, but so is perspective, and perspective only comes with sitting back, watching, listening, and deciding what is most necessary for the moment.

Watching the chatty anxious thoughts retreat, I began to envision being assigned the best nurse and having the smoothest infusion ever. (Not that envisioning it is any guarantee, but it is calming, which is never a bad thing.) I began to remind my body to accept and welcome the drugs that kill rogue cells, remind it to let them do their job before kicking them out, and remind it that it has an almost tireless ability to repair essential innocent cells caught in the crossfire.

So an hour later, when my husband told me on the phone he really didn’t want me going to chemo alone, I agreed to swing by for him on my way to the hospital.

We arrive, and my nurse introduces herself. I miss her name the first time around (memories of painful phlebitis distracting me again), but I like her face; it is warm and exotic and open. In response to her “how are you today?” I return a half-smile, and a half-hearted “fine”. A C-plus, maybe, if I’m going to be generous. She’s warm and attentive though, and wonderfully skilled—no retries on getting into my vein today—so I try to salvage that C-plus. I manage a better smile, and tell her a deeply felt thank you. She’s humble, and shrugs it off as luck of the draw, that on another day that same vein may not have been as receptive. I ask her if she enjoys nursing. She does, though she was terrified of needles and blood and starting IVs when she began her career. Now, just a few years into it, she does nearly a dozen a day in the chemo daycare unit.

I tell her she’s good, and she makes me do the requisite name spelling and birth-date recitation.

“You have the exact birthday my mom does!” she responds, smiling widely. “Same date, same year. And mine is three days before hers, on the 16th.” Why she told me that I don’t know, but it’s funny, because not only do I share her mother’s birthday, my daughter share’s hers.

It’s just a couple of dates, but it’s more than that. The gentleness with which she handles my chemotherapy makes it feel like my daughter is sending me her love, which she probably was.

Another patient on the other side of the room was surrounded at that moment by almost the entire remaining nursing staff in the unit, having a serious reaction to the same drug that had caused mine last winter. Feeling a powerful wave of compassion and empathy, I remember the practice of Tonglen, which others have done for me, and for my daughter, and so, as the nurses do their job with the Benadryl and other tools at their disposal, I begin inhaling this woman’s distress, exhaling relief and compassion and empathy her way. It’s an active, physical, non-desperate form of prayer that I love.

The nurses, from where I was watching, were care and compassion personified, professionals in every way, but human beings too, who understood that it is the little kindnesses that matter as much as anything during a crisis like this. The patient stabilized, and my session, with a few adjustments, went well and ended. On our way home, we stopped for coffee and a muffin on a tree-lined street patio, and though I knew that the effects of my treatment would gather momentum as the afternoon unfolded, it was a lovely moment.

In the days leading up to this one, I’d felt a deep fatigue, an effect of my chemo-depressed blood counts alongside an intense week of extended family gathered from all over to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. So much stimulation and emotion packed into a single week. Cousins and aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen since the last funeral I was able to attend, siblings and nieces and nephews I hadn’t seen in even longer.

In the two weeks before the event—before the mixed-bag verdict this week that my treatment is working but that I’m definitely in for another three months of it—it was a happy time of planning and anticipation for this reunion. It was a time of large and lumpy inflamed veins calming down and receding into the background thanks to some wonderful medicine. It was a time of late-summer outdoor lunches and suppers, of new harvest potatoes and peach cobbler, of desperately sad refugee images on our TV screen, of bike rides and sunflowers, of warm, warm winds turning to crisp mornings, of hot showers, of crumbled frozen oatmeal squares, of laundry, dust bunnies, recycling and all other things quite ordinary, and one evening, sitting in the backyard of some friends, an astoundingly full super-moon.

Full, that’s what keeps us going. It’s been a long haul. Nothing compared to the long difficult paths many of you are on, but still—nine months now, and it’s the love that keeps me going.

I plan to settle in for a few days of recovery after this week’s treatment. Sleep is the perfect escape, but always elusive during those first few days. I wake shortly before 4AM. My husband is awake also. We toss and turn for a little while; I read. Then we talk. About our reflexive protections, how we try too hard, or cling, or shut down when we’re terrified. At 6, I’m hungry, and get us both some yogurt. I’m still hoping it might buy me another hour or two of sleep. I read some more, which is usually foolproof. I doze a little after 7:30, wake at 8:30 with a start. My feet hurt, it’s time for my medication. A new day. The mirror tells me my cheeks are flushed, a side-effect, but Day Two is always infinitely better than Day One. Later in the day, I get on my bike and visit the queen of energy medicine. She looks at my labs, and tells me I’m rocking this. It’s a good day.

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September

In the centre of my vision, in the dappled sunlight outside the window among the other grasses and leaves, I see a deeply green reed, slightly separate from the others, moving about in the wind. It has seen strong currents of all kinds, wind and water. The sun reflecting on it is bright and white; it is shining, rinsed, waving, pulsating, bending, straightening, bending again, ever in motion, silent. Silent, but not entirely: her bending and reaching is a kind of voice too.

Some of the reeds around it are broken and felled, flattened. Not this one.

The car I am in accelerates now; there is a blurring of the grasses, prairies flying by, detail running together. Then focus again, the air just a light breeze, almost calm now. I step out. I want to know more, explore this place a little.

As far as I can see, there are fields: long, long rows of small bright green plants lined with black dirt, in the distance a small shack, a tiny spot inside in which to lay down weary bones, trembling knees and soul.

I hear echoes of voices, some intelligible, some only background sound, some familiar, some not. In the sky is the searing hot sun, all around are unfamiliar sights and sounds and foods. Aching muscles, a hollow in their bellies—is this really their life now? Was all that real? Did we really lose her forever, and him? Did we really all lose each other for so long? Will we feel carefree again someday? Alongside the ache and disorientation though, deep in the belly, is a spark of extraordinary determination.

fall fieldsThen, I feel cool nights, see endless green fields turned golden. A sudden flash of recognition for me, a shift in time; I am here, now, and I know why I’ve always been drawn to these golden fields, why September holds such a delicious magnetic pull for me, why I’m compelled to grab the phone from my bag to snap photos of these prairies when I see them—fall, especially that first one, once brought intense relief.

The fear in her belly was powerful, but she was determined—she had a life to live. She had life to give, life to protect and nurture, life she would protect at any cost. Nobody, nobody, was ever going to steal from her as they had in the past, from her, from her mother and father, from all of them.

This—without words, without thought—became her voice, her being, her eyes, her turning toward, her turning away from. This is how she lived. In a bright flash of sun on the summer breeze outside the window on a late summer morning, I saw deeply into her soul, saw what she could not say, saw what she had to turn from, what she embraced with passion. Saw how she learned to sway and bend, and just how deeply she had to learn to bend with the loss of her home, the tearing away of her baby sister, her innocence, her mother, her father, and over time, her other brothers and sisters too. I saw what this bending gave her, and how much it cost her too.

The reed is in the centre of my vision again, less defined now, perhaps a little frayed and blurred, but still bending and swaying, the sun reflecting off it more brilliantly than ever, and now I am a reed also, nearby. Separate, but connected too. And I know that I too will sway with the winds for as long as I continue to bend, I too will eat the sun for as long as I can reach for it, I too will shine in its reflection for as long as I can stand in the cleansing rivers and rains.

And then, an ordinary couple walking by outside the window breaks into my reverie on this ordinary late-summer Saturday, and I remember last night, the smile on my mother’s face after she’d been baptized in the sound of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra performing under the August sky—Walt Disney songs of innocence, and innocence lost; songs of happiness, of love and determination and courage and hope and beauty in the face of cruelty, rejection, loss, not fitting in, not having a voice. I will always remember the strength of her gaze in that moment, her voice, the light in her eyes.

And I will always remember the words of the very kind man seated a few rows directly behind my mother and father, the one who gave up his perfectly normal-height chair for my mother so she wouldn’t have to sit slouched inches from the ground on one of our low-rise, back-killing options: “The entire show was worth it for this alone: watching her obvious pleasure and enthusiasm, watching the two of them together.”

 

Textured Beauty and Joy

mall ceilingIt was lovely, the abundance of the week, but so is this right now, this quiet Saturday morning in the wake of it all. It was lovely, the intensity of a short but delicious visit from my son, the abundance of turkey and rouladen and dirty mashed potatoes piled high, of family with all its limps, of spirits and sweets and thoughtful gifts and silliness in the forefront, grief in the wings. But so is this, right now, just the two of us, our space, our love, our music and books and comfy cottons, a glass of water, a cup of coffee, some sit-ups, a few stretches, last night’s wonderfully crisp beer and juicy bacon avocado hamburger still resonating in my memory.

It was very powerful cracking those coconuts the other night too, with the full moon, just before the winter solstice, as a way to explore the concept of our souls. The loud noise, the milk spilling out, the instant awareness that to be alive is to be loudly cracked open, to have chips, to be uneven and raw and nourishing all at once. It was a brilliant metaphor, thank you, Tara!

Every year the sun stops, and we feel the darkness, and we light candles and think about the birth of hope, and how babies embody perfectly the beauty, strength, determination, and resilience of our humanity, how they embody perfectly our vulnerability, our dependence, our endless hunger, our existential loneliness, our desire, our need for connection.

Your new granddaughter, by the way, so much like you dear Jeff, is stunningly gorgeous.

I feel so lucky. I am so lucky. There is the confusion and fear and insecurity that comes with consciousness, but there’s also this: so much love, and the wonderful gift you give when you allow me to articulate my truth, my grief—the complicated grief we all have and are conscious of to varying degrees. The wonderful gift you, dear Robyn, give when you invite me to sync my vagus nerve to yours, when you listen with insight and wisdom and empathy. The wonderful gift you, dear Jeff, give with your presence, your arms around me, your truth, your edgy humour, your tears and self-disclosure.

Let’s do it again, and again—open our eyes wide and speak the truth—as long and as well as we can, because though consciousness, like all good things, is fragile and easily lost, it is what makes laughter and love possible, what makes it all so textured and rich and big and interesting and wonderful.

Winter Solstice Words

candleWe made beautiful babies together, you and I, and that is—despite how everything has been altered—something to celebrate as we approach this winter solstice, this season of long nights, fear, candles, and hope.

The babies we made were miracles. They had enthusiasm to die for, and possessed charm and beauty and brains and creativity. The first knew he would someday be a doctor, even then. The second loved her many babies almost as much as we loved ours, and I knew she, too, would someday be a healer. The third made us all laugh, and thought doing math over lunch as a four-year-old was fun. We knew he too would find his place in the world and grace all who cross his path.

We worked hard, you and I, as parents tend to, to pay the bills, feed and clothe them, and offer an enriched childhood. They grew, and they inspired us, and made us proud. We listened to their stories and dreams, we played hockey and dolls, and we jumped on the trampoline; we walked the dog and read books and watched movies and made things; we took ski trips and camping trips, we ate and laughed and loved.

There were dissonant sounds. There always are; without them there is no music, and for a long time, it was beautiful music, even with the dissonance. But with time, the faults in the score ripped wide open. The dissonance dominated completely, and the pain between us took a steep toll.

It bent our backs, and finally our knees, and one day we had to lay it all down. I turned away, you turned away, and we all wept, and for a very long time felt nothing but sorrow.  You needed to stop running though, and I needed to stop crying, and so we bid each other farewell.

It got messier then in many ways, for all of us. But for all the dissonance, this remains in sharp focus: We made three amazing and beautiful human beings together.

Also in sharp focus for me is this: Three years ago, just before the winter solstice, I heard the bell that will someday toll for me. It echoes in my ear still, especially at this time of year, and it demands extravagance. It demands I speak of the beauty and mystery and contradiction of it all. It demands truth, it demands love, it demands openness.

What we had was real and good, but it was not the whole story, and not enough to sustain us for life. We aimed for the moon, and it was rich and fun, but too painful.

I see the little faces of our children when they were very young, and sometimes, for a fleeting moment, I miss their innocence with every bone in my body. I see the old dreams, and know I must find new ones. I know the shortest day of the year is just ahead, but that longer ones follow in its wake. I know that morning always follows night.

The season clearly brings heightened nostalgia for me; there is something about anniversaries of major events. Every winter now, my body remembers. It shouts its memory, makes it impossible to ignore. But I’m lucky. Not just to be here, but to have come close, because even though I have hated it intensely, this coming close, it has brought gifts too. I’m lucky to be here to see our children find their way to adulthood and learn to navigate this nutty world. I’m lucky to have so much love in my life, others who don’t mind me putting words to all this crazy messy beautiful and painful business of loving and living and letting go.

I’ve filled our home with greens, and have begun my December habit of lighting the candles. I’ve set an intention, several actually: breathe love and words and peace into all the dark and dusty and silent spaces of my life. Seize the day. Watch the dying light of the season and remember that it eventually comes to all of us one final time, and that until then, it is my task to make space for what I know, to articulate it, to live it and reject the lenses of denial and pretense that flatten and soothe and dull. It is my task to let awareness infuse my days with texture.

Our lives, yours and mine and that of the babies we created, unfolded as they did because there was no other way for them to unfold. The future will unfold as it will also, and I intend to embrace it. I intend to remember that my heart is big enough for the beauty and the pain. I intend to embrace the love that was, the love that is, the losses and changes, the joys and disappointments, the new gifts along the path, all of it.

The Thin Light of the Moment

fireThere’s no better time than this moment right now, while that sliver of love is just barely still present in the night sky, to light a fire, to burn off some of the old and extraneous, and make room for something new.

It’s like our souls know this. It’s time again, they whisper. Or perhaps it’s just the souls of those of us who have always been conscious of the rhythms of the universe, those of us who have bled with these rhythms, those of us who know that it is a good thing to shed that which has become unwieldy and far too heavy. Perhaps it is just the souls of those of us who knew, even as children, the comfort offered by a patch of grass and a cold windy dawn, those who have always ached with the beauty of nature and known our connection to the air and water and soil and the process of photosynthesis, which truly and literally are our essence, our life.

Perhaps this sitting by the thin light of a sliver of a moon and a bonfire is only for those of us who know the only hope for our sometimes deeply-eroded and polluted joy is exactly the same one we hold for our broken oceans and lands: take a step back from immediate gratification and remember our origins: We are made of the earth; we are divine cosmic miracles, with an innate ability to renew and heal and create.

So light the fire, and exhale, exhale, exhale. Exhale the heavy particles that have for so long robbed you of vitality. Inhale hope. Trust the alchemy our bodies and souls are capable of in the dark of the night, alchemy that has turned rage to courage and joy before, and can do it again. Trust our enormous capacity to tolerate and survive and gather up the scattered pieces of our lives. We need not fear the ache in our bones and mitochondria; we need not fear our rage; we need only compassion for it in ourselves, and in each other. Though it may be a craggy high place we have climbed to, we need only to keep returning to oxygen, to our hearts, sore as they may be, and we’ll find that even at this altitude we can light a fire, and find enough air to breathe.

So by the light of the fire, we wait. We wait for the sliver of love hanging in the sky to grow into bright and pregnant fullness again.

And as we wait, we’ll find that, even here, our voices can remain both strong and gentle. We’ll find that the words so often stuck in our throats can return to facilitate the transformation that takes place in our bodies when our truth reaches the ears of an empathetic human being who too has sat often by this same fire. We’ll find that as our words land upon the soul of that other, it becomes possible to integrate a little more of what we know in our minds and our bodies. We’ll see that those scattered bits of soul lying all around us are still glowing, waiting to be loved and reintegrated. It is here in the soft darkness that we, like the naked infant in the incubator, grow strong.

Here, in the firelight, we know deeply that we are not kings of the universe, but rather keepers of it, part of it. We know deeply that we carry within us an ultimately indestructible divine essence. We begin to know at the level of our mitochondria that there is no shame in not having filled the soul of another by reflecting exactly what they wanted us to reflect, no shame in not fitting a convenient template. It is here we learn that there is no shame in the ways we’ve found to carry on, and there is no shame in our needs, our thoughts, our creativity, our desires and dreams and feelings. There is no shame in putting an end to mirroring what others are begging us to mirror, no shame in asserting that this, what we are putting forward now, though not what they had hoped, is in fact who we are. There is no shame in having thought for too long we might fill their emptiness. There is no shame in being female, and there is no shame in saying no. There is no shame in the rips and patches in our party dresses; we’re still coming to the party.

It is here, waiting by the fire, that we know the pointing fingers of others simply mean they have forgotten how to see and feel and feed their own souls in the thin light of the moment.

(Photo credit: Marcus Obal, Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Space for Grace

The other day, surrounded by the chaos of a thousand boxes, in the middle of sorting it out, I was struck by the truth that there is at times more room in my life for stuff and information and self-indulgence than there is for grace, grace in every sense of the word: generosity of spirit, empathy, beauty, humility, gentleness, kindness, letting go.

Grace is fluid. It flows our way, and through us, and out to others, if we permit it to, if we have our feet solidly on the earth, if our lives are uncluttered enough.

We take in so much—food, affirmation, information, criticism, material things. It does not matter what; we must ultimately break it down, assimilate the helpful, eliminate that which isn’t and which will, if held on to, ultimately become toxic.

Taking in too much, and taking in without taking the time to sort and assimilate and eliminate, without occasional excursions into the desert, will eventually result in an excess that saps our vitality, makes us sluggish, heavy, anxious, egocentric. It will begin to choke out breath and awareness and gratitude and empathy and deep sleep, which are all things we need to repair and heal our lives.

Major repairs, I’m learning, whether they be broken bones or a crushed spirit, can only happen in the absence of gluttony, in the presence of clear water and fresh air and quiet. New cells, new ideas, new ways of relating and functioning—all are best born after the death and proper clearing out of the old, after periods of dormancy.

Grace needs breathing room, white space.

The pruning process, like the removal of a tumour (which like excesses of all kinds serves no lasting purpose), can be exhausting and difficult. But it is, in my experience, absolutely necessary if we are to breathe deeply, to be free of congestion and bitterness, to have space for grace and love and compassion, to have the clarity of mind necessary for restful and plentiful sleep.

I think I may be nearing the end of a fairly dramatic pruning process that has been going on for what feels like a very long time now. It began with my cancer diagnosis nearly two years ago and should now, with this move and the paring down of my physical world, be winding down.

I’m pretty tired, but I couldn’t be happier about the coming winter.