In her book Eat, Pray, Love Liz Gilbert was lucky enough to meet an earthy, caring, and wise southern gentleman called Richard from Texas who alternately kicked her ass when she needed it and gave her all the love he could in between. I have been blessed in this life to have met my own Southern gentleman, Bob from New Orleans, who has the integrity, courage, and loving kindness of twenty men twice his age. One of Bob’s favorite expressions is “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
Recently my friend Bob suggested that I rent a television series called Treme about the
struggles of the people who came back to New Orleans to recreate their lives in a post-Katrina world. On the cover of the DVD case is a picture of a young boy wearing a green scarf and holding up a sheaf of bright green feathers, dancing down the street of a neighborhood hit hard from the flooding and the storm. Above his head are the words, “Won’t bow, don’t know how.”
Yet Another Health Challenge
I’m going through yet another health challenge right now, a painful bladder condition that has come and gone since April (following a walloping dose—three times of day for two weeks—of antibiotics for bronchitis). This bladder pain is coupled with a large vaginal cut that won’t heal and makes it hard to sit in front of the computer and do my editing work—and especially to write. Writing is all I long to do, write for hours and hours during these
three precious months I have off from the time-consuming rigors of teaching freshman English at the university. All my urinalysis and yeast cultures keep coming back negative, but I am in burning pain off and on, the kind of pain that wakes you up at 5:30 a.m. every
morning so that you never really get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow I have yet another visit for tests at my doctor’s, and maybe this time I’ll get some kind of answer—or a referral to a specialist. What I’m really afraid of is that they will diagnose me with cystitis—the fibromyalgia of the urinary system. In other words, “We don’t know what it is or how to heal it. It’s yours for life. You’re screwed.”
I just want to feel good again, healthy again, so that I can exercise more and really build myself back up better than I was before. I am so ready to move on with my life. So far I feel like a little kid who woke up Christmas morning with no gifts under the tree because I’ve been so looking forward to my first enjoyable, casual, bum-around, slow-down, go to the beach summer in two years of health challenges.
Part of my current physical distress, and slowness to heal, might be caused by the fact that my brother-in-law’s sister, Patty, just died a week ago. Patty bravely overcame three different kinds of cancer over the last several years. It wasn’t the brain cancer that got her in the end, however, it was the damage done to her brain by the radiation.
Every couple of months someone I know dies of cancer or gets cancer and it just blows my mind and scares the bejesus out of me each time. My beloved accountant Marion’s business partner died a few months ago after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, and now Marion has ovarian cancer. When I hear news like this, it makes me want to rage through the world like an Orisha Goddess, flinging lightning bolts from both hands, destroying this scourge on the earth, taking away every reason for people to get cancer and giving them
instead enormous doses of love and hope, belief in their own personal power and an unshakeable faith in God, however they perceive Him or Her to be. I want to be as big as the Earth Mother herself, cradle people in my arms, and whisper in their ears that everything will be all right.
All I can do is to write these words and to do my best to be there for my friends and family. I’m not a goddess, just a woman, a story teller. But in my heart I want to be thunder, healing rain, the waters that wash clean, the quiet after the storm, the rainbow, the new plants that springs from the ground.
Surrender – The Warrior’s Way
It’s a very popular concept in the spiritual community that we must surrender to illness,
adversity, death, pain, whatever challenges come our way. And I know this is true. I even wrote a blog about it called “Surrender: Releasing Fear, Opening the Heart” (October 30, 2010) in which I said that surrender is a place of refuge, and that “any and all outcomes are all right, that the Universe is not capricious and chaotic but has our highest good
as its goal.”
But surrender is not the same thing as passivity. In fact, it might mean leaning on the
fulcrum at the center of the world.
In December of 2009, on an afternoon when the doctors had told me I had stage 4 cancer and I was so freaked out that my dear friend Isabelle drove all the way up from Vista with an overnight case to stay with me until I calmed down again, I even surrendered enough to have a conversation about what would happen if I got sick enough to die, if I didn’t beat cancer twice. That’s a rare and courageous thing, to have a friend who will even walk in the Valley of the Shadow of Death with you. And I needed to say those words to someone, just so they wouldn’t sit in my mouth like stones.
Isabelle, who has nursed friends and family members who were dying, explained to me what it would be like in the last weeks of life, how it would be all right. She said that my friends and family would all take turns with me, and that I would never be alone. She also explained how a doctor had taught her how to use herbs to remove the pain so that I would have a good quality of life right up to the end. She talked to me about Universal love, and the eternal life of the soul, and how this life is just one version of our ongoing adventures as an evolving soul. I felt a good deal better after that conversation. Someone had allowed me to talk about the worst that could happen, and listened without flinching, without avoiding any issue, and from an unshakable center of love and compassion. What a relief that was.
And I did not die. Four and a half months later the cancer was gone from my body. I have been cancer free for fifteen months.
We Need to Tell Our Stories
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a novel called The Telling in which an entire culture, from time immemorial, has been based upon those who tell the stories, and those who listen to the stories, that is, until technological progress comes in and messes it all up. But even then most people remember that the stories were what you found at the heart of being, part of what makes life jump up and live.
In these blogs I’m still trying to find the words to share with the world my experiences of the last two years. I am a firm believer that I do not have “the answers” for anybody. No one has the answers. But we are obligated to tell our stories to one other, the stories of when we suffered, how we lived anyway, where we travelled, what it felt like, what pure joy felt like. And in the Telling, I think we can help each other to learn to truly live.
When someone I know dies of cancer, I get all unraveled for awhile, full of amazement and deep gratitude that I am still here, yet nervous that the dark wing has swept through the neighborhood yet again.
Some people would say that I should not be afraid, that whatever happens to me at this point is just fine—my highest good, Divine will, the way the Universe should go—that all outcomes of my life are good, that I should just surrender and not always be struggling so hard to feel so totally, extravagantly alive, so grateful.
Well, Patty has left us, and I mourn her. But I’m just not in a very surrendering mood today, this week, this month. I can’t surrender my desire to be alive here on this beautiful earth, in this wonderful body, to feel unique, one-of-a-kind, to give up on what dancer Martha Graham called “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.”
We the Living
Another of our sisters’ was taken last week. Patty didn’t believe in God, or in the afterlife, but I know that such a force of personality, such love did not blink out like a candle flame. She is somewhere, whether she expected it or not, and her adventure continues.
And even though her passing reminds me that some people might not see me as being healthy but “in remission,” sailing these waters of life in a leaky boat, what I see is an ocean liner, a true Titanic that God’s hand steers clear of every iceberg.
Though others go on ahead of us, and their list of names is long, I’m going to stay right here. There’s an old hymn written by Robert Wadsworth Lowry called “How Can I Keep from Singing,” which talks about how we raise our voices and stay within the endless Hallelujah:
My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?
So you see, I won’t bow. Don’t know how. There are two eagle cams on Catalina Island, and the chicks have fledged and are learning how to fly. I watch them come and go throughout the day. And up in Canada on another cam, a hummingbird is raising her third brood of the season, and her tiny chicks have just hatched. The cherries have just come into season here in California. Yesterday I bought a cactus with cascades of pink/orange flowers. The red-tailed hawk, the white egret at the falls, and the geese who fly overhead are still delighting me on Los Rios Street. I’ve yet to eat this year’s lettuce, zucchini, brocoli, and peas from Felis and Rick’s garden. The ocean is only a short walk from my door. There is too much to do.