The Gift of Suffering

I have not written in this blog for many months but now I am committing myself to write every day if possible. I usually hate it when bloggers make that announcement, but here are my reasons. In mid-December I began to have intense pain in my back, neck, and shoulders that came and went whenever I typed or wrote. This, I believe, was brought on by the huge number of papers I had to grade (including a new self-evaluation Portfolio assignment) and the rush job a client gave me to edit her interview and an article She had written. My body just couldn’t take it anymore. By January 20th the pain was almost nonstop and became excruciating. I had to apply for a leave of absence from my teaching at UCI. Since then I have had to endure doctors’ visits, scans, trips to specialists, blood work, physical therapy, etc. as we are trying to get to the bottom of this. Thankfully, I have seen significant improvement, but some days it still really hurts and it takes a great deal to write anything, sit at my computer, or even sit anywhere. I’ve spent a lot of time lately standing up.
I lost my beautiful singing voice three and a half years ago and had to have two surgeries to get my speaking voice back, but I can’t sing very much anymore and as a trained opera singer, that really grieves me. Now I began to panic, thinking that I had lost my other talent, writing. I was in despair.
I kept asking myself, “Why? Why after all I’ve gone through, recovering from cancer three times over the last 11 years, was this suffering sent to me? I always try to find meaning in whatever happens to me, and finally I found the gift. Everyone writes about their victories over adversity, but does anyone write about the intense suffering that slaps you to the floor and makes you cry out in agony, again and again because you feel so helpless?
Overcoming cancer three times and doing it with such courage and refusal to give up has made me an inspiration and an encouragement to everyone I know. So often I’ve heard the words, “I was having a terrible time in my life. Then I remembered everything you’ve been through and how you never gave up and how you won the battle with grace and gratitude. And I felt that my suffering was nothing compared to yours. I knew that if you could do it, I could do it.”
I realized that I was being brought to a new level of awareness through pain. The best teachers, the best comforters are those who have experienced in their own bodies intense pain. Pain is something that is inescapable. You can’t make it go away. So now, because I have no choice, I am using all of my creativity to find a way to move through pain. It can be done. You can learn to move through it. I will write more about this tomorrow because I hurt too much to keep writing.
What I did want to share today is that while I was up in the laundry room, pulling my clothes out of the drier, which hurt terribly. I began to think about Christ and his final words as he died on the cross, “It is finished.” It struck me that this was such an amazing statement. He came to earth to teach us and do many, many things. And he knew that he had accomplished them all.
I wonder what happened to the people around him when he spoke those words. Did the heavens darken? Was there a thunderclap? Did a blinding light come out of Christ’s body?
To me, those words might be more accurately rendered as “It is completed,” because he had done all he came here to do. It was done. He could go home now.
I had a powerful vision a few years back where I saw myself lying in a simple room. I was 94 years old and I wasn’t sick or in any pain. I was just completely used up. I felt my soul lift from my body and rise up through the Milky Way. I met my mother in a preternaturally beautiful meadow and she took me to my soul group. They came dancing down the beach, saying, “You did it. Of all of us, you did everything you came here to do.” They hugged me and we had a big celebration.
Pain can be overcome. Although at times it feels like living hell, if we can only move through it and try to hear its voice, begin to find that lesson it came to teach us, we can receive unsuspected treasures. If you are in terrible pain right now, know that you are a warrior, an explorer into new worlds. Have faith that your pain will someday leave you, richer than before. This is all I can write today because I really hurt. But I feel happy because my pain took me to the place where I could say to myself, “Nothing again will anything stop me from writing.”
By making this decision, I am doing what I came here to do. And I’m happy with that.
Now I have a date with a big pack of ice.

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We Are All Heroes

Most of us who are battling and recovering from cancer have never thought of ourselves as being heroes for our friends and family. However, I have often been amazed over the years to realize that my courage has inspired others. Sometimes I have felt so weak, so sick, and so scared that I could hardly put one foot in front of the other, but I kept on going forward. I never realized that others were watching, and how much it meant to them that I refused to give up.

The bottom line is that it does take courage, imagination, and determination to live like a warrior, to find things to feel positive about, no matter what, to realize that your troubles will pass, that your body can and will heal, and that you aren’t going to feel discouraged forever.

The first time someone said to me that I had given them courage, I was stunned. A friend was going through a very hard time with her job, and was afraid she was going to get laid off. She said, “I was on the brink of panic, wondering how I was going to hold on and survive. But then I thought of you and the way you had fought cancer, how brave you were, and how you never gave up, and I realized that my problems were nothing compared to that. I thought, ‘If Joy could get through that, I can get through what I’m going through too.’  It put everything back into perspective.”

Since then others have said similar things, and it has really helped me to feel encouraged that my own suffering had meaning to those who cared about me. Without realizing it, I had given the gift of hope to others.

No One Does It Alone

My second night in the hospital about 14 friends and family marched into my room during visiting hours. No one will ever know how much that meant to me. I still couldn’t speak at that point. But I could see the anguish on their faces, even behind their attempts to love and cheer me. Somehow I found the strength to say (about a dozen times), “Don’t worry. I’m going to be all right.” And it took a lot of concentration to get those two short sentences out, but they were the truth. I wasn’t happy about being told that I had 14 brain tumors, especially after I’d been pronounced “cured” twice, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to die this time either. Five seconds after my doctor told me I had cancer again, my feelings of fear and distress were pushed out of my body by a column of light that started at the bottom of my spine and surged up my backbone to flow out of my head like a flowering tree, and I knew I was going to be all right, that I was going to beat it this time as well. My fear disappeared.

In the weeks that followed, I was astounded to really how much people loved me. I was also amazed to discover how many things of importance I had accomplished and how much my life had touched others and made a difference in the world.

I think we all go through life thinking we haven’t done enough, having quite lived up to what we had hoped to accomplish. But the love of my friends and family helped me to see through that illusion and for the first time in my life I began to see myself clearly. I also realized how foolish it is to doubt ourselves, to be afraid to follow our dreams. For instance, all my life I have had a wonderful writing talent, but not enough confidence to really step out on my own. I felt much more comfortable co-authoring books with well-known people such as Lynda Schele and Elena Avila. But suddenly I understood that this third visitation of cancer had come as my great teacher. I realized that one of my missions in life, why I had been born, was to write, and that my very survival and the survival of my soul depended upon it.

So now I am writing a book on how I beat cancer. My second MRI at the end of May showed that there was no active cancer in my brain, that most of the tumors were either gone or turned to pinpricks, and that the four remaining had shrunk by 50% (radiation therapy doesn’t “vaporize” tumors, it kills them and then the body needs time to absorb and discard the dead tissue). So, as my sister said recently, I am “on the mountaintop.”

We Are All Heroes

One of the most important revelations that came to me shortly after I was diagnosed was how amazing every human being is, how much each of us has been gifted with, and how much we each have to offer. We live in a culture that has taken away our childhood sense of wonder and power and squashed it into a little box labeled “What is culturally acceptable.” We are brainwashed to believe we are small when in reality we are more wonderful than we can ever imagine.

The writing class I teach at UC Irvine carries the theme “The Hero’s Journey” and the last project my classes do at the end of the term is called the Rhetoric in Practice Project. This project gives them an opportunity to choose from a variety of mediums and deliver a message they really care about to their audience. One of my students created a short film entitled, “Heroes Exist in All of Us.” In closing I’d like to share the link to that video with my readers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG3DbC8ZvoY

Embrace your greatness. The world needs what you have to offer. I believe in you.

                                                                                                            Joy Parker, Radiant Warrior

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My Story – How I Beat Cancer

In this blog and the ones following it, I would like to share my story—what I’ve learned about how to beat cancer—most important, how to make cancer your ally rather than your enemy.

Ten plus years ago I was diagnosed with stage 3.5 breast cancer. I beat it. I was cancer free for seven years. Then a little over 3 ½ years ago in January of 1999, I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastasized breast cancer. It was everywhere, in my liver, my lungs, my bones. By the third week of April, that same year, the cancer was completely gone from my body. My oncologist was amazed. Now he calls me his “Miracle Girl.”

This year at the beginning of March 2013, I collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. I had been down at the beach trying to take a walk, but had not been feeling well for at least a month. Since I was gradually coming off a very strong anti-depressant, Loranzepam, that had been prescribed to me the second time I’d had cancer, I thought I was just going through a very difficult withdrawal. I’d read the horror stories on the Internet about how hard it is to get off this drug and how one should never take it for more than 3-4 weeks. No one had told me that, so I assumed the anxiety attacks and trouble concentrating I was experiencing were because I’d been on the drug for three years.

When I got in my car that early evening, I could not start it. I knew where the ignition was, but the hand of the Divine was on me because I could not fit the key into the slot. I called out to a jogger and discovered to my great distress that I could not speak. I knew what I wanted to say, but the words came out in the wrong order. It was surreal. She called an ambulance and I was taken to the emergency room. Eventually I was admitted and submitted to every test they could think of.

On day two, following an MRI, I was told that I had brain cancer. Fortunately, it was metastasized breast cancer, which is a hundred times easier to cure than brain cancer, especially when one has Her2 positive cancer, which now has many, many genetically engineered drugs, many powered by Herceptin, to knock the cancer out of your body. The doctor told me that I had 14 brain tumors, 13 tiny ones and one larger one.

[The cancer was nowhere else in my body (following two PET scans), and my regular oncologist feels that tiny stray cells of this cancer had been in my body from the first time I’d had cancer and had somehow activated ten years later. He believes this since all my blood work and scans over the last 3 years had all been cancer free on every count.]

My first feeling after the hospital diagnosis was tremendous distress and fear. But less than 10 seconds later, a feeling of joy coursed up my spine like a tree growing out of my body and spreading its golden branches above my head. I lost my fear because I knew I was going to be all right. This was not going to kill me. This time, more strongly than ever before, I knew that I was being called to embark on a new life mission, although I did not yet know what that was.

Once I realized that, I started to regain my ability to speak coherently. By day three in the hospital, I was still struggling a bit, but I could talk to people again. Both my regular oncologist, Dr. John Link, and my radiation oncologist, Dr. Kim, say it’s a miracle that I have come all the way back so quickly. I believe my quick recovery comes from my decision, my willingness to do whatever I’ve been called to do—teach, write, help others to beat cancer. I’m even teaching my classes at UC Irvine now—that’s how “back” I am.

Finding My Way

I knew ten years ago that I needed to write a book about my experiences with cancer because they were so extraordinary as a journey, but I just couldn’t face it. It was too depressing to revisit those memories. I started but just couldn’t finish.

However, my turning point, my epiphany happened when I was talking to my friend Carol. She said, “Joy, you know how to beat cancer, and you need to write about it.” I was stunned because I suddenly realized that she was right, but I had to think about it for a while. How had I done it? I certainly didn’t do it alone, but what were the factors that had led to my miraculous recovery twice and to my certainty that I would recover this time?

This blog is going to be about my journey to recovery and all the ideas, perspectives, people, prayers, and treatments (both mainstream and alternative) that brought me back to health and strength and, most important, helped me to become the kind of person I never dreamed possible. Believe me, when you are faced with something like cancer, all your limitations seem petty and the amazing spirit that lives inside of you, the extraordinary person you are, that we all are, rises to the surface and you become a warrior. You find strength, faith, love, and support you never realized you had.

I want to begin this series of blogs by sharing some of the things that I think have helped me the most. I will describe them briefly here, and write about them in more detail later. It is my heart’s wish that you will find something here to help you.

Find the Best Mainstream Medical Care You Can

I hate to disappoint those who believe that they can cure cancer by using only alternative medicine, but I personally don’t believe that. I’ve heard too many stories of people who travel to clinics in Mexico that put you on a juicing regime (usually at the cost of $11,000 for two weeks of treatment), or some other alternative therapies, and have died.

Why take that chance? Yes, cancer treatments are really hard. Chemotherapy is tough to get through, to make a great understatement. Surgery is no picnic. Radiation makes most people exhausted for weeks, and some of the oral medications have unpleasant side effects. But these treatments beat the crap out of cancer.

So, don’t settle for less. Do the research, ask for recommendations, find the best oncologist you can. I found Dr. John Link of Breastlink, and I know that he is one of the top oncologists in the country. Most important, go with a doctor who will give you hope, that will speak positively to you, because a doctor’s words go deeply into you unconscious and conscious mind and are important factors in your recovery.

Alternative Medicine

That said, I’m a firm believer in complimentary medicine. While you’re getting the best that modern cancer treatments can offer, find out everything you can about alternative medicine and use it. You will need to consult with your doctor since certain vitamins, anti-oxidants, for example, interfere with chemotherapy and radiation. Yes, you need to keep that stuff in your body for a certain period of time. But there are many things that really help during and after your treatments, including aerobic exercise. Even walking a little and slowly building up stamina helps because cancer hates aerobic exercise.

Reach Out to Others

DO NOT CURL UP IN A BALL. This behavior does not help you at all. In fact, I believe it will have a really negative impact on your recovery. I’ve talked to friends and relatives of cancer patients who have seen their loved ones do this, and they all feel it makes them sicker. But most important of all, you need to understand that your loved ones need your help. They probably feel worse than you do, especially at the beginning, because they feel helpless. Believe me, they’d take the chemo for you if they could because they love you. I knew people loved me, but I never realized how much until I was diagnosed this third time. It has helped me so much, to just let them help, to accept their offers made out of love.

Learn to accept gifts, help, prayers, money, etc., etc. Somehow we think we don’t deserve it, or are afraid we will be a burden. Bull Sh–! Get over it. Let that loving support into your life. It will not only help you and speed your recovery, but it will help your family and friends. They need you. You need them.

Keep people informed: since you don’t have time to make a career out of calling up everyone you know, create a mass emailing list and send out updates every couple of weeks. Create a Facebook page. Designate a close relative or friend to be in charge of updates if you aren’t up to it.

Sign on an ally to help you find rides to doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping (there are angels out there who will even do that for you), and whatever else you need. People want to help. Wouldn’t you help them if the shoe was on the other foot? Can’t we reasonably assume that ALL of us will be in need of help someday? Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to pass on the love in the future.

My sister, Debby, has helped me so much, even though she’s three thousand miles away. She was the one who contacted all my friends and family and employer when she found out where I was and how I’d been diagnosed. Since then she’s talked to my doctors, worked with my social worker at Hoag Hospital to find organizations that can give me rides to my doctor’s appointments, researched medications I’m taking, become my power of attorney, and just taken care of so many details that have made my life easier. She also calls me up almost every day to encourage me and see how I’m doing. I love her so much.

The POWER of Prayer

Each time I’ve had cancer, I’ve had thousands of people across the country praying for me. I’ve felt every prayer and I believe prayer is one of the reasons I’m here today. The details of a person’s belief system or the name of the church they attend (or don’t attend) don’t matter. Mother/Father God does not pick favorites.

I’ve prayed for many, many people under many circumstances. Recently, I got some amazing lessons in the power of prayer. In the weeks after I was diagnosed, I was placed on steroids four times a day and anti-seizure medication to reduce the swelling in my brain and to avoid my having any seizures. The steroids kept me from getting much sleep, only2-3 hours per night. That was hell. However, when I woke up at 2:00 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep, my mind was crystal clear and I kept getting the most amazing insights for the next few hours.

One of the things that seemed strongest was the feeling that I should pray for the healing of others. For a few weeks I felt filled with this incredible power, like a mainline to the Divine. The people I prayed for were healed. For example, my 83-year-old aunt who’d had breast cancer last year and had undergone three weeks of radiation found a lump in her breast. She was due in three days to go to the doctor and get a scan. The day after her scan I went over to see her and asked what had happened. She told me that the nurse couldn’t find the lump and neither could she. The scan turned up nothing. I hugged her. I was so happy.

Prayer takes many forms, speaking with the Divine, a loving parent or friend who has passed on, an angel (such as Zadkiel, the archangel of compassion), meditating and asking for guidance.

Hypnotherapy and healing CDs are also powerful tools because they align your entire being, your entire consciousness, with the desire and belief that you will get well. My dear friend Larry Garret, who is a master hypnotist, has custom-made hypnotherapy CDs for me over the last 10 years and I believe that he is also one of the big reasons I’m here today.

Find a New Perspective

One of the most powerful things you can do when you have been diagnosed with cancer is to find a new perspective. Create a new story in which cancer is your teacher, a story in which it has not come to kill you, it is not your deadly enemy, but your ally, given to you by the Divine to teach you valuable lessons, to make you into a more wonderful, powerful, loving person.

I’m not one who can call cancer my “friend.” I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that. But I can view it as an opportunity, to see my life in a new way, to imagine things I’ve never seen before, to stop postponing my dreams, to have greater faith in myself as a precious and extraordinary person who has come to this earth to do important things. And all of you reading this have come here with a purpose.

There are times when you will feel very discouraged, or even like giving up, but know that those times won’t last. I’ve been there. Sometimes I’ve just felt really bad. I’m not Joan of Arc. But I kept on going because I knew that continuing to be alive in this beautiful world is worth it.

Each one of us is filled with life lessons, things that only we know, things that only we can give to the world. Hanging on my wall is a framed picture of Martha Graham, one of the pioneers of modern dance, and underneath I’ve typed one of her quotations:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all of time, this experience is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.”

This describes you.

My sister-in-law, Shari, recently sent me a beautiful doll made by an amazing couple who create these wonderful creatures for people who have cancer. There is a note pinned to her dress that says, “Don’t ever give up.” I read those words quite often. Pin them to your bathroom mirror. In fact, put up notes around your house in places where you will notice them. One of the notes that I have taped to my bathroom mirror is something I got from the television series Treme, which is about life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It says, “Won’t bow. Don’t know how.” I like to repeat that one over and over in a loud voice when I feel down.

And, you know, I won’t bow. And I don’t know how. That’s why I’m still here. I only know how to live, and keep on living, and giving, and loving. I have good days and bad days, but I keep going, and I have faith.

I send my love to all reading this blog. Remember that the light comes out of the darkness.

—Joy Parker, Radiant Warrior

Posted in Cancer Survivor, Healing, Initiation, our life's purpose, prayer | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Life of Pi

Warning: There are a few spoilers in this blog, but I don’t think anything I could say could possibly take away from the experience of actually seeing this film.

A couple of days ago I saw Ang Lee’s Life of Pi based on the novel by Yan Martel. I was completely and utterly stunned. I don’t usually have much enthusiasm for 3-D, but this is a film that should be seen in that format because the depth pulls you into the experience in an unforgettable way, helping you to enter into Pi’s world.

The plot seems relatively simple, but that’s an illusion. Most of the film takes place in a lifeboat (122 days) in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. An adolescent boy named Pi survives the wreck of the ship that was taking him, his family, and his father’s zoo from their home in India to their new home in Canada. A freak storm sends the freighter to the bottom of the ocean and a strange accident lands Pi, an enormous white and yellow tiger, a hyena, and a zebra with a broken leg in a large lifeboat that is half covered by a large canvas tarp that initially hides the tiger. Nature takes its course and soon the hyena and zebra are killed and consumed. Pi avoids the same fate through his ingenuity. While the tiger is filled with food and sleeping under the tarp, Pi creates a makeshift flotation device by roping together several life buoys and tying them to the back of the lifeboat by a long rope. Eventually, while he knows he cannot befriend the tiger, he realizes that he can train it to view him as the alpha animal and allow him to spend time on top of the tarp that covers the back of the boat.

What struck me was how I “recognized” what this film is about, how we can only learn certain things when we are pushed to the edges of experience. Pi experiences terror, loneliness, visions of unutterable beauty, pure grace at the edge of despair and, finally, a miraculous salvation because he will not give up, no matter what.

We Must Tell Our Stories

I visited all of these places as I battled stage 4 cancer three years ago—and won through back into an unimaginable new life and complete health. I tried very hard to write a self-help book about what I learned on that journey, all the people who helped me and loved me, and how something so powerful that I can’t even name it—God/dess, Divine Energy, the Universe, Compassion, the Great Mystery—reached out to me again and again in my greatest times of need. I discovered an extraordinary personal road map back to health and into abundant life, but what I finally learned in the end is that I can’t save anyone.  I can’t just hand out that map like a Michelin Guide. I long so very much to end suffering in this world, but I also realize that we can’t save others from that suffering. The only one we can save is ourselves.

However, and what is most important, is that we do have an obligation as human beings to tell our stories. In that way we can give something to others. Many times, it’s not even a story, but just the way we are, the way live in the world, the way we love and allow ourselves to be loved, or how we deal with grief or setbacks—like Pi, refusing to give up. Often, when we do speak, our words might be remembered months or years from now, so far away in time that they seem to come from the very center of the person rediscovering these thoughts, who doesn’t remember us speaking those words at all, but instead feels them as if they have arisen from their own being.

There’s an old story told about the Buddha, how when he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the first thing he said when he opened his eyes was “This cannot be taught.” However, the gods Indra and Brahma come down to him and spoke a single word, “Teach.” He agreed “for the good of man and the gods,” and spent 45 years doing just that. But what he taught was not his experience, but the way to the experience. In other words, you cannot possibly give someone the answer, they must find it for themselves.

We Must Surrender

In The Life of Pi we witness the miracles that happen when a person is on the very edge of endurance and does not know the answer, does not know what help will come. Over and over again in this film we hear Pi—who since he was a young boy, has sincerely embraced Christianity, Buddhism, and a Hinduism without seeing these faiths as opposed and contradictory, say in his greatest hours of desperation—say, “You have taken everything from me. I surrender to you.” True surrender is an extraordinary experience. Every time in my life that I have surrendered, a miracle has happened. The thing is, you must really surrender. You must be willing to truly accept that whatever overwhelming thing is happening to you, that it is really for your highest good, that you will embrace whatever outcome. Only then can you finally release fear and fall into the arms of trust.

There is a scene in the film where a whale has come in the night and leapt over Pi’s raft, capsizing it and knocking all of his food and water rations into the ocean to be lost. Pi and the tiger are hungry, thirsty, and without hope but Pi surrenders himself and suddenly hundreds of flying fish appear and begin falling into the lifeboat. Pi has been trying to fish at the time and suddenly catches a large beautiful fish, fat and almost a yard long, in his makeshift net. All of this happens at once. As the fish struggles in the net, Pi hits it repeatedly on the head with the flat end of his ax, trying to kill it. He’s hungry and desperate, and this drives his gentle nature to uncharacteristic violence. As he strikes the fish, he weeps and says, “Forgive me,” over and over again. Finally, the fish is quiet. It looks at him as it is dying and he suddenly bows prostrate over it and cries out, “Thank you, Lord Vishnu, for coming to me in the form of a fish and giving your life for me.”

When the Journey Ends, Get Out of the Vehicle

Finally, all of the food and water is gone and Pi and the tiger truly are starving. Pi pulls the tiger’s head into his lap and tells him that it is the end. There is nothing left to hope for. Suddenly, the miracle happens. The boat bumps into a strange island that seems to be made of kelp plants and covered with thousands of lemurs, food for Pi and the tiger both, and pools of fresh water. For what seems like weeks, the two of them range over this strange place until Pi realizes that they must leave [I’ll keep his reasons secret.]

There’re some very interesting messages in that scene. First, there are times when we can’t quit, just because we’ve been saved. We haven’t reached our destination yet or fulfilled our purpose. The journey is incomplete. In another sense when I thought about that scene, I remembered something a person told me about surviving cancer. She said, “Stop worrying about getting sick again. You won’t. Cancer was a very powerful teacher for you, a vehicle that took you to a remarkable new place in your life. However, your journey with cancer is completed. When the journey ends, get out of the vehicle.” In other words, keep going forward toward the next goal.

Pi can’t quit trying to find his way back to the real world just because he’s been temporarily saved. He has to go all the way. And the only way to do that is to leave the island with the strength and healing he’s found and go forward. Otherwise he knows that he will die alone and unfulfilled.

Unforgettable Beauty

On the edges of experience, there is unforgettable beauty. At one point in the film Pi sees the tiger staring fixedly over the side of the boat. “What do you see?” Pi asks, overwhelmed suddenly by a desire to share the tiger’s experience. From our next perspective we see Pi looking down into the ocean, which is filled with depths upon depths of shining phosphorescent fish and indescribable sea creatures. Is he suddenly seeing through the tiger’s eyes? Has he overcome his fear of the tiger, gotten into the body of the boat, and looked out over the edge? Is he having a vision? We don’t know, but it is beautiful and soon we have forgotten everything but the experience—the beauty itself. We have no more room in our heads for any thoughts, just for the pure feeling of being, of seeing, of union with the moment.

What Is Truth?

In the end our goal is not finding the “truth.” There is no ultimate truth. All we have is the story, how we tell it, share it, how we take what has happened to us and shape it to a greater purpose, to our own path of salvation. At the conclusion of the film when Pi has made it to the coast of Mexico and is being questioned by the agents of the Japanese insurance company, men who have come to take a report about how the ship was lost, Pi tells them his story of his long journey in the boat in the middle of the ocean with the tiger. And they don’t believe him. When he sees that they won’t accept his story, but need to go back with a report that can satisfy their bosses, he makes up a more mundane tale about how he, his mother, the first mate, and a murderous cook were alone in the boat and how only Pi survived in the end.

The film itself is a story within a story in which a failed writer is told to seek out Pi because of his unusual experience. Pi promises the writer that he will tell him an amazing tale that he may publish, and that by the end of the telling, the writer will “believe in God.” However, at the very end when the cameras pull back to the present and middle-aged Pi has finished, the audience can see the doubt on the writer’s face. Pi simply says to him, “Which story do you believe? Choose.”

That’s always what it comes down to in the end. We have an experience and then we must choose how to create the story—what really happened to us, what we learned, how we live now because of it. I think there is something utterly important in the simple decision to choose our truth.

Sooner or later we all find ourselves in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. If you don’t learn to master this tiger, it will eat you. If you don’t learn to love it, it will starve to death and die. We need our tigers and our tigers need us. Without them, we will never be able to reach the other shore.

Posted in Cancer Survivor, Overcoming Fear, Storytelling, surrender, The Life of Pi | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Soaring through Life on the Wings of the Eagle

I am astonished that it has been over six months since I wrote my last blog. I imagine people finding my blog on WordPress, reading about my battle to overcome cancer, and saying, “What happened to her? Is she still with us or has her journey come to an end?”

No, I’m doing amazingly well, almost three years out from the day that my dear physician’s assistant Donna knelt in front of me and my family in the chemo room (because we had filled all the available chairs) and told me the results of my April 2010 PET/CT scan. “It’s good news, very good news. Every bit of the cancer is gone from your body. It’s a miracle.”

I said, “You’ve just made about 2,000 people who’ve been praying for me all over the world very happy.”

A Long and Amazing Journey

This past Wednesday, November 14, 2012 I went back to my oncologist’s office for another routine checkup. Dr. Link told me that I was such an amazing case that I should be in a medical journal. He talked about how well I’m doing and said that in all the decades that he’s been a doctor that he’s never seen anything quite like me—and that he’s seen a lot. That’s a pretty impressive statement coming from one of the country’s leading oncologists and researchers.

He also gave me some statistical observations. For example, it has been ten years since I was first diagnosed with cancer, and I’m still going strong. I hadn’t thought about how that “ten years,” which is a significant number in terms of still being healthy so long after the initial diagnosis, comes into play even if the cancer did come back once during that time. He also pointed out that it has been over a year since I have been off all the chemo and targeted therapies, and that I’m still clear of cancer. Apparently, many people who have had stage four cancer stay on things like Herceptin for as many years as they can get their insurance companies to pay for it. Dr. Link called getting off the drugs “a bold move on everyone’s part.” But I was ready for it. I wanted my own body back.

When Dr. Link asked me how I was, I told him that I knew what it felt like to be sick, and that I could feel the strength in my body. I told him that I love my life more each day, and give thanks for being alive in this indescribably beautiful world. I said that I make it my daily practice to control my stress and do things to make myself happy.

Sometimes Taking Time for Ourselves Turns into a Blessing

Even though I had seventeen more academic papers to read and grade for my university students, after my doctor visit, I gave myself a treat by taking myself out for lunch—a heart shaped scone with home-made raspberry preserves and a luscious Mediterranean salad—at my favorite restaurant, the Tea House on Los Rios. I could see afterward that I was meant to be there that afternoon, even though it meant carving two hours out of my hectic schedule, because I ended up having a very inspirational conversation with a young couple who were sitting at a nearby table.

I complimented the guy on the top hat he was wearing (you get your choice of hats at this tea room —what’s tea without a hat). They found out I was a writer and we started talking about my book about curanderismo and my other books about the history and the worldview of the Maya Indians. But when I told them the subject of my novel, which is about two women who change radically after a near-fatal illness, I filled in with some of my story about my own illness and miraculous recovery. “Somebody has to be a miracle in this world,” I told them. “That’s my job now, to live as fully as I can with all my heart, and to know that every day I remain alive gives hope to everyone around me. And I’m happy to be that person and to do that.”

The Balance between Surrender and Empowerment

There have been times in my life when I have been faced with situations that have felt so terrifying and overwhelming that the only thing I have been able to do is to completely surrender myself to a higher power, knowing that no matter what the outcome, everything would be all right, and that angelic forces I can’t even imagine watch over me day and night.

Lately, however, I have seen that there are times when it is not always in our own best interests to believe that the ultimate authority that decides our fate is outside of us in some other agency. I think about this most when I’m facing a situation like a checkup at my oncologist’s, when those scary voices in the back of my mind whisper, “Well, you feel good, but what if the cancer comes back?”

I’ve thought about this a good deal—that it is, after all, my life, and that I do have something to say about what happens to me, that in the end, I choose whether to live or die. These days when the voices whisper, I just say, “No, getting sick again is not an option. My job is embracing life and being truly alive in this magnificent world, with every cell of my being.”

Over that last three years I’ve changed a great deal, and I’m amazed to find that my ideas about my life, my health, my relationships with others all keep evolving, that new ideas and experiences keep coming fast and strong, even though I know I’ve learned so much. One thing I have come to believe lately, in the very deepest place in my heart, is that we get hamstrung by fear and doubt. If we can truly believe in the ability of our bodies to heal, no matter what, anything health-wise will be possible. We tell ourselves about “God’s will” and “our “higher good,” but over the past six months I’ve begun to believe that we have the ability and the right to decide what happens to us. Christ said that if we just had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed that we could move mountains. There’s so much stuff in our heads, engrained programming about our limitations, that I know it’s hard to stop being afraid and to really believe. It’s like a magical balancing act. But once you get beyond a certain point, something shifts. I can hardly believe how mysterious and amazing this feels, but I have to and I want to and I intend on keeping it going, because my very life is on the line. In my case, faith is an utterly important thing.

Writing Fiction Is a Great Teacher

The most amazing part of all these new ideas and experiences is the novel I am writing and what it is teaching me. Anyone who has ever written fiction knows that at times it seems to come from a place beyond ourselves. I’ve created two characters who wake up from their treatments from this mysterious disease that is striking people down all over the world, and find themselves in a place where all their irrational self-doubts and fears about their limitations are gone. One character’s therapist tries to give her a glimpse of what this will be like if she survives her illness:

“It’s as if you awaken, both literally and figuratively. The cacophony in your mind, the noise you have lived with all your life to the point where you hardly even notice it is gone. All your irrational fears are gone, your senseless self-doubt, your self-sabotaging thoughts. You can finally begin to glimpse yourself for who you really are and discover the potential you were born to fulfill. You are no longer separate from the world …”

After I wrote this, it occurred to me that there was nothing keeping me from just letting go of my fears and self-doubts. What purpose did they actually serve? They were just crap that had gotten stuck in my head and had nothing to do with reality. Like Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” I suddenly had a vision of what it would be like to just do the things I loved the most, in the belief that these are the gifts that I came into the world with, and that the world would embrace these gifts, even as I embraced the world.

It is so thrilling to have lived through something so devastating and found the grace and the support of extraordinary loving souls, because it has gotten me to a place where I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. And I am utterly captivated with the creativity and the ideas that are coming to me at this stage of my life, and with the amazing love I’m finding for people, the connections I’m feeling with them.

Not only am I still alive, but I am filled with excitement to see what’s up ahead because this journey continues to give me such gifts.

Posted in Cancer Survivor, gratitude, Healing, Initiation, Joy Parker's fiction, living our dreams, Los Rios District, our life's purpose, Overcoming Fear, San Juan Capistrano, surrender, Treme, work and love, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty

When you have faced a health challenge where you could have lost your life, everything shifts into a whole different perspective. Even two years down the road in perfect health, I make it a spiritual practice to ask myself certain questions every day such as: “What is really important in life?” What gives me joy?”

It’s as if I used to live in this huge warehouse filled with wonders, but all I had was a little pencil flashlight to find my way around. Now I have a really huge, high-powered light and I’m finding out that there’s much more to feel and experience than I could ever have imagined.

I had an extremely vivid dream once where I had died of a ripe old age and was on the other side. One of the most interesting things I learned in that dream is that “the veil” between our human existence and our “home” in the other world is much thinner than we could ever imagine. We can truly experience “heaven on earth” if only we have the eyes to see and a heart that will open. It’s there, all around us in the hummingbird outside my study window, in the fourteen geese that suddenly flew overhead while I was walking down by the river in the Los Rios District in San Juan Capistrano, in the way the hills of Southern California fill your entire being with the smell of sage and resinous plants. It’s in the love you feel for your family and your best friends, and the love you feel for a stranger’s child running along the beach, laughing.

Random Acts of Kindness

How can we be a person who brings a little bit of heaven closer to others? I think one of the simplest and most powerful things we can do is to follow Anne Herbert’s admonition to “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

Last Sunday I had brunch with my friend Isabelle, and spend the rest of the day with her. Sometimes when we talk it’s like “tongues of flame” descend and the dove of the holy spirit comes to rest in our hearts. Ideas, insights, epiphanies just flow, and it’s so sweet. One of the things we began talking about was how powerful an act of kindness can be. Studies have shown that not only does being kind to someone flood our bodies with certain types of endorphins that cause a rush of good feelings, but also the other person to whom we are being kind experiences this amazing physical/emotional response as well.

Izzy was telling me the story of how recently she was standing in line behind a woman buying sheets and pillowcases. However, when the cashier rang up the purchase, the woman didn’t have enough money, so she set the pillowcases aside. Isabelle stepped up and said, “Would you please allow me the pleasure of buying those pillowcases for you?” The woman was stunned and at first said, “No, that’s all right.” However, another woman further down the line had the right idea. She said, “Look, someone is offering you a gift. Just take it and feel happy.”

Research has also shown that the morphic field of kindness doesn’t stop with the giver and the receiver but literally moves out like a wave, raising the endorphin levels of the people surrounding the event and creating somatic shifts in them as well. This reminds me of the story told by a Native American friend of mine. He had been invited by a police officer to come to Long Beach, build an inipi, and conduct a monthly sweat lodge ceremony with a group of young men whom we euphemistically call in our culture, “youth at risk.” As Gene went month after month and met with these young men, the police officer noticed something very strange happening in the community. This particular part of Long Beach was known for its high crime rate, and especially its murder rate. The office started to notice that, statistically, the crime rate was going down, and most significantly the murder rate. It was as if whatever honesty, healing, and deep caring was going on in that sweat lodge was moving out into the community itself, healing some of the chaos, hatred, and desperation of the people who lived there. That’s a mysterious and powerful message.

It seems like a small thing, just being kind. But I’ve been the recipient of kindness many times over the last few years of my life when I really needed it, and sweet acts of simple kindness were sometimes all that kept me going.

Gratitude

I have a wonderful friend named Gretchen who talks about how important it is to give thanks every day when things are going well, but especially when things are going terribly wrong. Nothing gives you the strength to keep going like writing, “I’m grateful for____” ten times on a sheet of paper. It’s astonishing how much there really is to feel thankful about.

Then again, every once in a while we hit a place in life’s road where, for a while at least, everything is golden. I’m on one of those stretches now where in the last week I’ve had so much to be thankful for. I’ve had a long, long period of stress and uncertainty, but now all of that is resolving, piece by piece. So I’d like to end this blog on a note of gratitude.

I’m thankful that my CT and bone scans are completely normal and that I am the poster child for beating cancer, the person my oncologist calls “a miracle.” I’m so glad I can be that miracle and that two years down the road I’m strong and vibrant and enjoying life with all my heart.

I’m thankful for the miraculous rescue of Baby Eaglet Harmon over the past few days. When the Raptor Center took him out of the nest to care for his injuries, it was risky and there was no guarantee that his parents would accept him once they put him back, especially since the whole shebang was accomplished via a truck with a cherry picker. However, literally moments before the kind folks at the RC were about to move in and rescue him again since the parents hadn’t come back in over 24 hours and the poor eaglet was about to spend another night alone in the nest—potential prey for owls and raccoons—Dad swooped in like superman and began feeding the eaglet, and Mom was not far behind.

What I am especially grateful for is watching the chick literally luxuriate in all the new attention and “feeding up” he’s getting. His eagle parents are pretty young and haven’t raised many broods. Before Harmon’s injury, when his wing got stuck in the nest bowl, Mom eagle used to leave the nest often to go shopping at Bloomingdales while the 3-week old baby sat there alone. Now there is almost always a parent in the nest, and Harmon is snuggling with them all the time—attention he needs since his former snuggling partner, his sibling, fell out of the nest a week ago. It gives me such joy to watch him lying sprawled in the nest with a full crop of fish, stretching with contentment.

Finally, I’m thankful that I have made it through the first step of the three-year tenure process at UC Irvine, and that my department has given me their full support and recommendation for my continuing appointment. The first time an instructor undergoes this evaluation, they call it “passing through the eye of the needle,” so you know it’s not easy. In their letter to the higher-up committee that will review my application they wrote:

“With great enthusiasm, the Composition Program recommends that Joy Parker be granted an excellent review and promoted to the status of “Continuing Lecturer.” Joy is one of the most gifted and talented teachers on the Composition faculty, and also a productive colleague and collaborator.”

This is huge hurdle, and I’m over it.

May we all be granted big flashlights in the magical warehouse of life and remember that bad times are followed by good times and that there is always so much to be thankful for.

Posted in 5-7-12 Minnesota Bound Blog - latest update on Harmon, Cancer Survivor, Copying with Anxiety, eagle cams, eagle chick, eagles, Francis Weller, gratitude, Harmon is home, Harmon's parents return, Healing, Live eagle cam, Los Rios District, Love, Malidoma Some, Minnesota Bound, Minnesota-Bound Eagle Cam, Minnesota-Bound Eagle Chick, Mom and Dad eagles return to Harmon, Nature, our life's purpose, prayer, Reda Rackley, Rescue of Harmon, Rescuing Harmon, San Juan Capistrano, Saving Baby Eaglet Harmon, Saving Harmon | 1 Comment

5-8-12 Much Joy Today in the Minnesota Eagle Nest

Note: If you wish to read about Harmon’s amazing rescue and return to the nest from the very beginning, either click on the month of “May” in my archives to see all posts, or click here to go to my blog entitled “Saving Harmon: The Eaglet in the Minnesota-Bound Nest.”

https://joyparker.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/saving-harmon-the-eaglet-in-the-minnesota-bound-nest/

5-8-12: As I tuned into the Minnesota Bound Nest this morning, I saw our baby eaglet with a very full crop preening himself, stretching, and settling down to a very relaxed and happy “food coma” nap. Nearby Mom stands careful watch over him. What a way to start your day.

What I didn’t know (until I started reading some of the “chat” for updates) was that last night at 7:00 p.m. when the eagle parents finally landed in the nest—after Harmon had spent more than 24 hours alone and hungry—the rescuers from the Raptor Center were all nearby and that Jim was moments away from climbing back up the tree, re-rescuing Harmon, and taking him back to the Center. This was literally a last-minute miracle.

I’m sure we all have our own stories, but I was on the freeway on my way home about 6:45, having a conversation with the Divine. On the one hand I realized that in the huge scheme of things, maybe it would be better for Harmon to be fostered by new, more experienced parents at some eagle nest deep in the forest, far away from people and cams. On the other hand, with all my heart I didn’t want to lose the rare opportunity to be part of the magic of watching this little eagle—so courageous and strong, who so far had beat all the odds—grow into a beautiful juvenal. I want so much to watch him open his wings, learn how to use then, and one day to take his first flight. I wanted to be able to spend the next few months watching that world 75 feet in the treetops, hear those sounds of wind and birdsong and eagle cries, be a part of that special place in the Minnesota Woods. It is pure mystery and wonder to immerse oneself in the world of a beautiful wild creature and to watch the secret workings of its little wild heart.

In the end it’s really a question of love. Some people say we shouldn’t project our feelings onto nature, animals, and birds. But I’ve met with people of many indigenous cultures and witnessed their relationship with nature. They don’t objectify nature or see themselves as separate from the living world. They see themselves as part of a tapestry of life that is complex, powerful, and beautiful in a way that is far beyond our everyday definition of beauty. To them everything is alive, even trees and stones, and they are part of it. All nature is imbued with spirit and consciousness.

And Then Something Wonderful Happened

When I got home and turned on the computer, I couldn’t believe it. And I never knew till this morning when I read the updates that if the parents had waited a little longer to come home, that the story would have been completely different.

The MN bound teams writes: “It’s not every day that something this incredible happens.  This just goes to show the power of mother nature.  Tens of thousands of lives have been touched by this eagle family and their impact has spread all around the world.

“It was a moment of tears for many.  Standing from a distance we were only minutes away from going back up to get Harmon.  Jim, our tree climber saw the mother close by the nest.  Harmon was screaming and it was clear that something was happening.  Everyone stood silent and watched.  Soon, the mother moved closer yet again.  Then, out of nowhere dad flew down and landed in the nest.  It was a reunion for the record books.”

Dad returned first and began feeding Harmon two of the fish heads the Raptor Center had set around in the nest. But when Mom landed, she grabbed both fish heads from Dad and began feeding the baby herself. I thought, “That’s it, they’ve all bonded again.”

Today is a New Day

Dad brought a huge fish to the nest this morning, and Mom has been snuggling with Harmon off and on. A moment ago, Harmon was getting another meal. It’s so magical to watch the adult eagle tear off a little piece of fish with its powerful hooked beak and then gently reach down to delicately place it in the chick’s little beak. Now it’s gently raining and Mom is sheltering Harmon, snuggling him warmly against her breast.

What’s ironic is that this whole experience seems to have taught the eagles to be much better parents because Harmon had to spend a lot of time alone in the nest before. Mom seemed like somewhat of a flighty young eagle, with only a couple of years of parenting experience, but she’s much more watchful and attentive today. We all grow and learn.

Here’s a link to the latest Minnesota Bound blog and what they have to say about last night’s family reunion:

http://www.mnbound.com/bald-eagle-blog/

And if you want to watch live, here’s a link to the live Minnesota Eagle Cam live:

http://www.mnbound.com/live-eagle-cam/

Happy Eagle watching and much joy today!

P.S. At 12:50 Minnesota Time there was a hail storm that lasted for quite a while. Thank God the Mom was there to extend her wing over the baby, then take him close under her feathered breast. This eagle Mother is really learning to be a magnificent parent.

Posted in eagle cams, eagle chick, eagles, Harmon is home, Harmon's parents return, Live eagle cam, Minnesota Bound, Minnesota-Bound Eagle Cam, Minnesota-Bound Eagle Chick, Mom and Dad eagles return to Harmon, Nature, Rescue of Harmon, Rescuing Harmon, Saving Baby Eaglet Harmon, Saving Harmon | 3 Comments