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

Some Things that Matter to me on this Good Friday Morning

This is for me, but also for a few others in my sightline right now—wonderful and courageous human beings whose little spot of earth they travel has buckled or narrowed or just shifted dramatically beneath their feet.

A story matters to me—a good one. One in full colour, one that includes reality and hope and courageous girls and boys, throngs of them. Courageous men and women too, men and women unafraid of speaking their truth on behalf of the marginalized. A story that transcends this moment, these bodies, our fears, one that is captured in the word Love.

Peace matters, everywhere of course, but right now I mean peace with myself, body and soul.

A blanket matters, and having an extra to share. Pretty things, yes, definitely. A colouring book, sunlight through the window, gold sparkle on hand-stitched medicine pouches, a blossom through the green.

medicinepouchCreative energy matters. The freedom to capture the things that matter, and then paint them, make something with them, love someone with them, or be on the receiving end of that creative love.

Empathy. Being able to feel the sorrow of another, perhaps even being able to diamond-heart transform it, and then return it
to them as something brighter and lighter and warmer.

Pleasure with which to balance out pain and sorrow. Hot tea. The arm of the man or woman you love on your back. The smile of your son or daughter. Sunshine on your face. Tastes that delight. A friend across the kitchen table. A circle of women with open hearts and ears. Men who have your back, or, depending on the situation, who are unafraid to show their tears. The ability to inspire hope.

Shady forests in which to walk, and which offer up clean air. Lungs in our chests, for cellular respiration and energy. Rich soil, uncontaminated and heavy-metal free, in which to grow plants that nourish and heal. Congee, as the gentlest of healing foods, to transform into muscle and movement.

Agency: Knowing what you need, and having a voice, feeling no shame.

Children. Babies who fill us with hope and laughter, and become children who re-teach us how to play, and then adults who make us thankful and inexplicably wealthy.

Our mothers and grandmothers and mother earth, right behind us, ready to catch us when we falter, our fathers and grandfathers and father sky, stronger and wiser than we once believed. The Universe as an ultimately safe place to land after all. Stories that have room for human beings, difficult emotions, defeat and despair, but also for splashes of light, resurrections, spring equinoxes, Easter Sundays.

Dispatch from the Face-Plant Queen

Time for an update. First though, an anecdote, another nurse-lined hallway one. Waiting to see my oncologist yesterday after nearly five weeks in bed, numb clubs where I once had feet, a vacuum where I once had quads, and morphine and general mud where I once had brain tissue and balance, I decide to visit the washroom. Knees hit the floor first, then forehead. Nurses appear in an instant. “I didn’t pass out,” I reassure them. It takes a while, but I convince them.

“Nice goose egg,” they tell me. I make my way to the washroom; they’re right; it’s a goose egg. But it’s nothing, not in the greater scheme of things.

In the five weeks leading up to yesterday, I’ve travelled nowhere, and everywhere. From a first-round chemo reaction that felt like I’d been poisoned and charred from my skin to my bone marrow, to medication-induced oblivion, I’ve graduated to wobbly first steps down the hallways of our condo, the parking lot, once even to the mall in a wheelchair.

The excellent news is that my oncologist takes all this in without missing a beat. “It’s the Taxol,” she says, “We’ll remove it from rounds two and three,” she offers. I can’t believe my good fortune. Another two rounds of chemo, yes, but they ought not to be anything like that first one was. And then, icing: “We can postpone tomorrow’s treatment for another week if you’d like, yes, allow you to gain a little strength back.” I’ve almost won a lottery. Still, I’m frightened.

Back home though, I’m elated, hopeful, eager, and for a moment think my life might resume tomorrow. I swing back to fear. And back to eagerness. I speak to my family doctor about reducing medication dosages. My life apparently won’t resume tomorrow, and medications will be necessary for some time yet, doses titrated down slowly. “This will take months,” she says, but it will get much, much better, and it will pass. But it’s so nice to hear your voice!” I’m deflated. But how nice is that, a doctor who returns a call and changes a prescription without insisting on an office visit?

Patience has never been my forte. I will have to practice.

I love all of you. The young adults forever tied to my DNA and my soul, whose voices and eyes and bodies, even through the oblivion and across the miles were such potent medicine. The mother-daughter familiarity lying on the bed next to me when I surfaced from my oblivion states, whose smiles and tears made me remember all I needed to know in that moment. The man whose love has so often carried me over the years, and who is now completing an intensive course in patience, and in finding new TV series and bites of food just the right flavour for me, and in patience, and in domestic and kitchen literacy, and in patience, and in worry and sleepless nights, and in patience. The man and woman who gave me life, whose tears I felt across town, the sister who kept offering to drop anything on a dime to come meet my needs.

I love those of you who sent their magic from across the oceans, those who sent their love from the pews of their places of worship and got their friends on board to do the same. Those who, a short time ago, I knew only in a service-provider capacity who stepped beyond those bounds to offer their amazing healing skills, their empathy, their acute intuitions and minds and just the right metaphors and insights to get the frontal lobe of my brain crackling in ways that—science journals now tell us— literally and in measurable ways alter the biology of our cells. Those who breathed the endless human capacity to be selfless for an hour or two and from distances large and small simply channeled the divine. Those who offered to dance despite hardly knowing me, those who transmitted their energy through their hands on mine, their eyes locked into mine, those who refused to take offence at my family-only visitation request. Those who supported via healing circle ceremonies, bone broth, foot massages, wheelchair outings, fuzzy socks and pretty things in general, via stew and kabobs and open-eyed conversation for my tired newly-graduated nurse-husband.

They’ve been endless days and nights, and may be for some time yet, though hopefully not to the same degree. But the memory will fade, the injuries and fear will heal, the cancer will give way. And I hope that what will remain is the awareness of wealth, of divine holy goodness.

Oxygen to say Good-Bye with

“It’s going to be an awesome winter,” I said to my husband in early October, which it has been, weather-wise, but the gloriously rare warm fall temperatures have belied the internal chill and fatigue some of us were feeling: Months and months of running from our ghosts by way of working too much, playing too hard; filling our brains, emptying our brains—anything at all to distract from the giant, full reservoirs of dark, cold water lapping at our feet, ready to knock us completely off our balance.

Planted squarely in the centre of each of the women’s stories in my mind this morning—the stories of good and generous and amazing human beings I care about deeply—there lies a fresh experience of trauma, of physical pain, of toxic words from pivotal figures, of freshly fed, strong, quickly-burrowing brain worms.

Then, an open valve on the dam, a little overflow, a foreshadowing of something new, a series of key events. For one of the women on my mind today, it was a weekend shared with a small group of women who understand something absolutely essential about her recent experience, and who were able to remain fully present to it with her, help her hold the weight of it, massage it, and change its shape profoundly.

For another, it was another vessel—a quiet, warm, wood-fired retreat, again with a circle of women keen to bear witness to her experience and to understand deeply—a vessel and period of hours during which something deeply lodged beneath her ribs was put into words and images and emotion and a thousand blood-red rose petals.

For others, it was other vessels still—dear, familiar ones of church and family and home that resonated and healed most deeply.

And for others of us yet, it was a hot little fire in the river valley on the night of the winter solstice and the dark moon a few weeks ago. A small circle of like minds, a bundle of fragrant sage, and in our hands, little keys in the form of words on paper, images, artifacts, all meant for the fire. We smudged ourselves and our circle. We spoke in turn, placed our representations into the fire, and then stood and watched the flames. We felt some space open up around us, and inside of us, making room for something new to spark into flame.

We returned to our families, to holiday preparations, festivities, love, and apple cider—apple cider, which this year, with that Cognac and those million sticks of cinnamon and little foreign things my daughter brought from her specialty spice store, was divinely none like any I’d ever had. We ate exquisitely spiced squash and utterly gourmet not-steamed Brussels sprouts and festive foods of all kinds. We played and laughed and celebrated.

Darkness is only utter blackness when the candles won’t stay lit for lack of oxygen, when we can’t find our way to the truth and look it squarely in the eye. Hope, goodwill, peace, and cheer become genuine possibilities again only when everything moves from life underground to a place in free-flowing oxygen.

Nothing is different, and yet everything is, too. What makes it different: Being able to breathe again without boulders beneath our ribs. Holding in the palms of our hands and with our eyes wide open the truth of what we know about ourselves in this moment, about what is inevitable and what is not. Seeing clearly what has gone up in flames and lost its charge. Recognizing that which was a lie, utterly false. Seeing that which needed to be, but no longer needs to be: I am not what she said; you are not what he said; none of us are what we fear. We are all so much more.

We will walk into the New Year tonight with more clarity, more muscle, more freedom to express our truth, whether that truth is laughter or deep grief or anger or all three. And even when that clarity spotlights the juxtaposition of joy with a million unrelenting cruelties of the universe, we will walk into it with an infinitely deeper ability for the simple and profound gift of pleasure and love.

Night Skies, Fires, Songs, Remissions

fire“We must sit at the fire and think about which song we will use to sing over the bones, which creation hymn, which re-creation hymn,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run With the Wolves. “These are some good questions to ask till one decides on the song, one’s true song: …What are the buried bones of my life? In what condition is my relationship to the instinctual Self? When was the last time I ran free? …The old woman sings over the bones, and as she sings, the bones flesh out.”

This sitting by the fire takes time, and ideally, includes the warmth of fellow travellers. And it isn’t something that needs doing only once in life, or twice, not unless you’re infinitely luckier than most.

I am so thankful. For the many, many good things in my life, yes, for remission status confirmed again, yes, yes, yes! But perhaps even more so for the bright stars and warmth so often around the fire with me. For those who understand that the waiting period preceding the verdict on my remission status is a time of (to use Victor Frankl’s term) provisional existence—a time for sitting by the fire. (Thanks to my friend Ike for the reminder.)

This sitting by the fire is never easy, not for anyone, no matter the reason for it. Not when it’s our own new song we’re searching for and learning to sing, nor when we are present to another trying to find and learn theirs. And I sometimes have to be reminded that not everyone is comfortable with sitting by the fire. It is however, in my view, a wonderfully rich experience, at least as wondrous as it is to be present for the light of day that follows night, the joyous times that come in the wake of discovering even the first few lines of the new song with which we’ll begin to sing flesh back onto our stripped-bare bones.

There are, if we keep our eyes open, always others ready and willing to sit by the fire with us as we search for new songs. The humility and patience and emotional vulnerability, the generosity and grace and courage and compassion of these bright stars make them the most miraculous of human beings to me, the kind whose very presence is healing. My night sky has often been brilliantly lit, and kept the fires of gratitude stoked. I hope I am this kind of star for you too—now, tomorrow, whenever.

Lighting Candles

It’s been too cold and too dark for too long now too. The other night, to mark the winter solstice, to remind us of longer days ahead, I lit all the candles I could.

Mom and Dad came. I hadn’t seen them since summer. Mom had made my favourite childhood sweets and brought them with her, along with the loveliest mineral bath salts. She also brought her gorgeous smile, and her enthusiasm for our happiness here, and I remembered that empathy and pure love are the best of gifts.

What would we, any of us, do without these?

Yesterday, after seeing my aunts—those still with us—at Mom’s birthday lunch, perhaps in part as a result of sensing the heaviness of the million crushing losses they have all born throughout the courses of their lives, I desperately needed a nap. I woke up hungry, and my husband offered to warm up some leftover lamb stew. Gratitude.

To my friends who have lost their mothers or fathers or a child or a partner, those whose loneliness hurts: I’m so sorry; I can only imagine the void. For you, for all of us, I light a lot of candles at this time of year. They remind me that though hope at times flickers, it will steady again to, and make us more conscious of the growing light.

A Hint of a Smile

No amount of bright paint or floral wall décor can make the place feel less frightening to me. None of the cheery smiling faces can really take the edge off of simply being there.

Sure, there are amazingly beautifully brave people all around—inspiring—as the staff who love working at the Cross Cancer Institute is quick to say. Still. All I could think about was those whose news today—or yesterday, or last week or last month—wasn’t good.

Cancer is a thief.

But you go through the motions, almost robotically, answering the faces behind the desks “how are you” with “fine”, even though you’re not. (I did append my “fine” once today with “that’s a lie,” which registered just a hint of a smile on the face of the clerk.)

But I am fine, now, and very, very thankful.

And I’ve forgiven myself for being short with my husband this morning, telling him that no, I’m not interested in what Chris Hedges is saying, not today, and yes, I know we’re normally on the same page, but I can’t think about political and corporate corruption, not today.

The tears came when I got home, within the safety of his hug. Then the joy: I can tell my family the good news. And the kids are coming for dinner.