Bereaved

I’ve been silent. Unable to get the crumbs to cohere into a ball that might yield a shell.

What has silenced me: Chemical injury to my normally serotonin-producing abdomen. Oncologist-powered words carrying grave threat. Bereavement.

The word bereavement comes from Old English bereaflan, meaning “to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ It happens to everyone, but when you’re in it, you feel alone.

How I miss you, my once-strong body and mind. How I miss you, my vision of a happy pain-free future.

How I miss you, Jo. And you, dear friends, all of you I haven’t been able to see all these weeks lying around waiting to feel better.

Vulnerability is strength, they say. We must be a pretty strong little tribe around here now then. It’s been a shivery wind. Tonight, I stood calmly near a gorgeous old vase I own, and told my husband I could easily fling it through the TV screen and not bat an eye. I could’ve. Clonazepam to the rescue.

But the scan news I’ve been waiting on is good, or at least not terrible. I’m living with my cancer. It’s no worse than it’s been for the past two years, for all my oncologists terrifying words last week. So now, to focus on patience. I’m a terrible patient. The thing to remember is that when you want something very badly, you need to be willing to wait. The other night I read about reindeer moss. It can survive almost anything the world throws at it. Helen Macdonald, in H is for Hawk, says it is ”patience made manifest”. You can freeze it, dry it, it won’t die. It goes dormant and waits for things to improve. I may need to get my hands on some.

The other night, I reached out to scratch my husband’s back, and felt an sudden warm wash of light and music, and for a moment, just from the touch, I felt as though I’d become the grand piano and the light. And another time, he kissed me, and I became, for a split second, an exquisite, strong bolt of pure light and love.

Little trips of hope and life?

Advertisements

Hovering

hard, loud, early morning rain outside my open window
a long, crashing rumble of thunder;
be warm and dry and safe out there, dear child

and you, you heart-broken one,
frightened by the intensity of the grief,
the endless dark tunnel,
try to remember you will emerge
to see the sun again
and learn to live in the space between dark and light

the blue skies of childhood may not return
but blue skies will
the bounce in your hamstrings may sleep a long night
but what returns will be enough

the body remembers

it remembers both the joy and the horror
and it doesn’t know the difference
between the quiet imagined story
and the louder, more apparently real one;
it will respond to both

so tell yourself a story

and remember the hot summer sun,
being mesmerized by the iridescence of the dragonfly

poised and elegant, she hovers,
forward and backward,
upward and downward,
side to side
hovering, she sees past illusions
to the depths

Tell the Truth, and Chase Happiness

chasing happinessYou tell me that your nights are cold and dark and long, and that words of beauty and love and hope ring hollow; I believe you.

Friends speak to you of the warmth they feel in the wind; you feel only the chill. They speak to you of birdsong, but though the birds sing and all around you it is spring, it registers only distantly with you, like church bells a thousand miles away meant to call only others to comfort.

Others still speak to you of the blessings that come with your loss; you feel only the loss. They speak of silver linings and positive attitudes. You’ve tried to see and wear these, but it only makes you feel more alone. Your rose-colored glasses have been shattered along with your world, and you feel no strength with which to face it.

Pain is a lonely place. This is true, whether it is your body or your parents or your children or your lover or your best friend or your government that has betrayed you. Those on safe perches and still in possession of rose-colored glasses have no right to hold out to you shiny words.

We’re built for happiness, not for platitudes, and happiness is not something that comes through another’s pink glasses. We must chase our own bliss, and we must chase it with every ounce of energy we can muster, because without it at least on the horizon, we will despair, and quit.

Chasing it is hard work though, and requires, literally, strength. So if you have no bed where sleep might restore an ounce of strength, and have lost the ability to come in possession of one through the ways you once knew: beg, borrow or steal one. If you have no pretty words, find a safe place for the words you do have. If you have no balm for your loneliness or pain, look someplace you haven’t yet looked.

You have a right to want to be here, to feel a smile from deep within.

And even if you fear your time here will expire long before you want it to, as some of my fellow cancer bloggers are, you have a right to want to be here, and to speak your truth about your rage, however uncomfortable this might be for others. You have a right to the clear-eyed vision you are now in possession of, and a right to tell those trying to persuade you to look at the bright side to please stop. You have a right to chase whatever it is that just might have the power to comfort you, and to make you smile now and then through your pain and tears.

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.

Women Who Run With the Wolves

I saw you on the street today, and you looked absent, weary, buried, compressed, tense, angry. Take your cue from Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Yes, I am still reading Women Who Run With the Wolves, and it has perfect lessons for those of us who have looked in the mirror to see a face we hardly recognize.

Women, it turns out, women in touch with their souls, their original, natural, untamed true selves, share much with the wild nature of wolves, I’m learning from her—both have strong senses, both are playful, both are very devoted, both are inquisitive, relational, strong, intuitive, adaptive, protective of their young, brave, inventive, robust, life-giving, creative, aware. Both know how to persevere. And both can become aggressive and reckless when starved for too long.

Wolves, when they have for whatever reason, stopped thriving, carry on until they can thrive again. No matter how sick or injured a wolf, how afraid, how alone, how lost, how weak, she will carry on. She will lope with the deepest of wounds. She will outwit, outrun and outlast whatever is tormenting her. She will take breath after breath, drag herself from place to place until she finds a place she can heal. She will seek protection of the pack. She will run about gathering information, tasting a little of this, a little of that. She may look a little crazy for a period of time, as she tries to regain her bearings. Once she has processed the information she has gathered, she will begin moving in a more recognizably rational manner again.

I’ve discovered that I have in fact been doing this for some time now, and that it is okay to be doing this. It is far worse to stay where one does not belong, than to wander about lost for a while, looking for what it is one needs.

I saw it in your face because I now know what it looks like. I have finally begun to accept that a number of my dreams have died, even the new and recent Plan B and C and D ones, the ones I thought would be easy to realize. I am accepting that the soil in which new dreams might grow is not fertile at the moment, and that until I properly bury the old ones, and allow them to decompose and nourish the soil, it will not give rise to, or adequately nourish, new ones.

So if you don’t always understand my bahaviour in the coming months, if I appear scattered, or if you hear me howling—or you know someone else who is behaving in these ways, or you yourself are—remember that the feminine soul shares much with the instinctual nature of wolves, and that we can heal by taking our cues from them.

Estés says that those who have been called defiant, incorrigible, forward, unruly, or rebellious are on the right track, that their true and wild soul is nearby. This is quite hopeful for you and I, don’t you think? May we both soon be running with the wolves once again, strong and clear-eyed.

Revivification

You have, in your own words, shed all the tears you can for now. You feel dead inside. Betrayed, defeated, cheated, emptied out, terrified, utterly exhausted. You know that it is perfectly normal to feel the sorrow you feel. And you also know you desperately want to avoid a next time, though you have no idea how to do this.

Reeling, your mind continues to grasp at words and insights that might potentially prevent a next time. If only you could help the other see it from your perspective. This too is normal. But deep down, though you may be unaware of it, you know nothing you can say will reduce the likelihood of a repeat injury. You become trapped, paralyzed in your mind, your body, your questions and blame and grief. You become unable to act creatively on any aspect of your life.

But no matter how you try to analyze the injustice, and how successfully you make yourself believe you can stay in its line of fire and not be burned to your core next time, you will, in time, be burned again, if you stay in this place of hoping words alone might do the trick.

Is there then nothing that can be done? I believe there is. I believe that surrender to the full truth of the nature of the injury can give rise to your truest and deepest self, the one in possession of strong intuition, one that knows another kind of response, one that will move swiftly to get out of harm’s way. I believe that although you have been burned to the core, the bones of your innate strength and wisdom and resilience are still there. To use the language of the brilliant Clarissa Pinkola Estés, if you are willing to spend some time in the desert sifting through the sand it is possible to find the bones, as well as the song you need to sing the flesh back onto them. You can again become strong, agile, creative.

You asked me, “what would you do?” This is my answer: Find someone who can help you plumb the depths and collect the bones and create a new song with which to sing your deepest self back to life.

Gut Feelings

Hope, they say, begins with our thoughts. But in actual fact, hope’s origins are much more primal and fundamental than that.

Keeping those bright spots of color in our experience involves more than willing them with positive thinking. Positive thinking, yes, but positive thought is born of and rooted in of something very biological.

Our minds influence the health of our bodies, but the reverse is equally true. Mind and body dance closely, almost as one, both leading, both following.

We now know that the neurons, neuro-transmitters and receptors found in the brain are also present in every single organ and system in our bodies. Our guts have more neurons than do our brains, and, for better or worse, they produce 95 percent of all the serotonin produced by our bodies.

This of course explains the findings of a growing body of research supporting the use of a probiotic diet to reduce stress and alleviate depression and anxiety and sleep disorders. Probiotic food is food that is alive, food that energetically supports life. Healthy gut flora produce stress-reducing B–vitamins, and set the stage in a million other ways for good health throughout the body. It can positively impact almost everything on the spectrum between the restless overactive brain and the lethargic hopeless one.

To borrow Scott Peck’s famous opening line, life is difficult. How well we digest what it delivers and keep hope alive is determined in large part on what we put into our bodies. Hope and positive thought and body-brain chemistry are inseparable.

I read Margaret Trudeau’s account of her bipolar illness in Changing my Mind last weekend, which, while in need of a slightly heavier editorial hand, was a compelling read. But the brightest spot for me was learning that at least one of the doctors involved in treating her illness understood the key role nutrition plays. We can’t deprive our bodies and brains of the microbes and fats and trace minerals that are the very essence of life, and still expect to feel and function well.