Wilderness, or Being Wilder

The Shimmering Grace thing popped up again a few days ago, and as always, has left me totally amazed.  It’s a little story.

In our library here at Rose Villa where I now live, I “just happened” to see a book entitled The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature  by Gerald May.  Except I only saw the title, picked up the book, and brought it back to our cottage.  Because, drum roll, I am planning to go to Sitka, Alaska next week for 6 days, together with a group of friends who also live here.  We are all attending Sitka’s Summer Arts and Science Festival.  I jumped in because One, I promised myself that I would see Alaska before I die, a promise I made several decades ago.  And Two, I am longing for wilderness, for old growth and water and rivers and wildlife and silence.  For the healing power of nature.  Yup.  I crave it and need it, and can no longer get there by myself.  This seems doable to me.  Mostly.  Aside from my terror.

Here’s May’s first paragraph.  “I am sick now.  The prospect of my death is continually before me.  My body is frail, my energy always at the edge of exhaustion.  At the same time, I am wilder than I’ve ever been before.  My soul basks in wilderness, and I am grateful.”  O my.  He is speaking my language.

He goes on.  “Wilderness is not just a place; it is also a state of being.  If happiness means being happy and sadness means being sad, then wilderness means being wilder.”  Well, okay then!  “This inner wilderness is the untamed truth of who you really are.”

And here’s the shimmering story.  I suddenly figured out who the author is.  OMG, as the kids say now on Twitter.  Gerald May was one of my greatest teachers.  He wrote a number of books, two of which are classics now: “Will and Spirit”, and “Simply Sane”.  Gerald May is now dead, but was a psychiatrist and a spiritual director, one of the very best.  Eloquent, creative and willing to see through all the jargon into the soul of our work.  And share. He was my guide and my companion for years in my own practice.

I had no idea that he had written another book, before he died.  And a book about wilderness at that.  What a gift.  Thanks, Shimmering One.

About the terror.  You see, it’s a group of 11 people, all elders mostly able, and one sweet young staff person who will herd us where we need to go.  The trip on Friday will be 8 hours, including 3 airports, countless people, and lots of noise.  I am so frail now and so sensitive to all inputs that just the idea of this is overwhelming.  Solutions are unfolding, much like climbing Mt. Hood.  Instead of crampons and ice axe,  I will be using a Bose noise canceling headset, and also an old iPod that I can plug in to my brain.  I’ll bring my own food.  And so on.  I have a long list.  Nothing is really simple anymore.

Once at Sitka, there are other nightmare logistics.  Breakfast is from 7 to 8 AM.  That just makes me laugh.  I don’t do anything at all much before 9 AM, and generally don’t plan to get anywhere before 11.  I can’t.  So I’m bringing my own breakfast and teas and pray for a kind kitchen person.  My writing/poetry workshop is from 8:30 to noonish or so.  Again, not going to happen.  I hate to disrupt groups and teachers, really hate that.  So I may have to forgo the workshop completely.  We’ll see how it goes.  I’d be happy, actually, to be on my own the entire time.  Lots of forests, trails, totem poles, river walks, the ocean, boats, a little village with shops.  I could happily just be there and hope people leave me alone.  Talking exhausts me now.  And then I collapse, and the idea of collapsing there, without Eric, is beyond terrifying.  You have no idea.  I’d rather face a grizzly bear.

Every waking moment now I am battling the voices that tell me to stay home, and forget about this venture, with long lists of all the shit that could go down.  Voices that are both wise and also crippling, which makes it hard to discern.  What keeps me going is just the felt sense of being there, in nature, and letting the healing happen.  I need it.  It’s calling me, like the mountains used to do, a visceral pull.

Please pray for me.  I am so frightened.

 

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Coming Clean

Writing this particular post for months.  It’s a tough one, for me and probably for anyone brave enough or bored enough to read it, too.  It’s about meditation and confession and humility and becoming friends with ourselves and vulnerability, just for starters.    I’m willing to bet that there is a common thread, however, for those of us who are on borrowed time, and know that down to our bones.  Here goes.

Almost every cancer patient is given or finds a list of things we can do for ourselves as we make our way through cancer land.  Meditation is often not only on the list but if not at the top, nearly there, for pain control primarily and as a way to deal with anxiety and depression.  Buddhists teach meditation and mindfulness as a way to “make friends with ourselves” and to develop skillful means as a spiritual path.  Quakers know that when we are silent and listen deeply, we can hear the “still, small voice of God” within.  Sounds great, doesn’t it!  Yup.  It is.  Mostly.  Except when it isn’t. Great, that is.  It can be excruciatingly difficult, also.

This starts with a little story.  When I was working full time, providing therapy for others on multiple levels decades ago,  I used to take a silent retreat every 3 months, for at least one week, with a group of Zen Buddhists who were also Catholics.  We sat in complete silence for 8-9 hours a day, not making eye contact, not reading, not speaking, just sitting in meditation with walking meditation every half hour, all day for about 7 to 10 days, with mass in the morning and a zen talk every evening by our roshi who was also a priest.

One day, I was noticing my own mind – because what else was there to do, really?  No TV, just my own mind unrolling movies in front of my awareness, my witness.  I noticed that  day that I was impatient, irritable, judgmental and stubborn.  I could see this as I played out little movies of memory or thoughts, in my mind, and began to name what I saw.   Great.  Next half hour, I noticed I was scheming, anxious, smug and opinionated.  Yup.  The list got a little long, so I went upstairs to my room, and started writing these darling traits down so I could remember, in between our sitting sessions.  It went on that day: domineering, victimized, possessive, suspicious, snide!

Truly, I was horrified!  Shocked.  I’d run upstairs and add more to my growing list, hoping no one would ever know.  Next day, same shit:  self-righteous, angry, pushy, manipulative, aloof, greedy, evasive.  After more of this: insolent, bitter, arrogant, conniving, seductive, snotty… I started to laugh!  It just got so funny!  Maybe you had to “be there”, but it was hilarious!   Still makes me laugh.  Sort of.  Fussy, fearful, murderous impulses (way down, hidden from sight, but I saw it like a flutter of something scary in the dark forest) grandiose, snobbish, rash, self-absorbed… on and on.  To this day, I am still adding more charming aspects of my own being, my own history, when I catch them;  being prejudiced about one thing or another are especially hard to see, elusive.

Some might say, “Hey wait, Susan!  You are much more than all that, what about all your positive traits, too?!”  Wanting to somehow dilute these insights, perhaps, or to make me feel better about myself, to take away the sting.  Maybe this makes some uncomfortable.   I have a page of positive traits, too, not to worry.  But this part of the meditation process doesn’t exactly get a lot of press, as far as I can tell.  Wonder if the doctors really know what they are recommending.  Want to bet? Because this is what eventually happens if you actually meditate.  A lot.  Probably different lists…

But here’s the thing.  I have finally made friends with myself (Did I say sullen, severe, scattered, punitive?)  and in the doing of that, joined the human species, warts and all.   Does all this lower my blood pressure any?  Not so as anyone would notice.  I wonder about AA and their thing about “taking a fearless inventory”.  Perhaps this is what they are referring to.  Certainly this has aspects of the great sacrament in the Catholic church, confession.  If done with mercy and humility, there is wisdom there.

So, if this is such great medicine for cancer patients, how do I transform the internal horror of such a freaky show into something inspiring and useful?  In other words, why in the world would anyone want to become so vulnerable? Why fucking do this!!! (Using bad language, undisciplined, cutting, intolerant) (Rebellious)

That question, dear ones, is why it’s taken so long to write this post.  (lethargic, procrastinating, making excuses) (Judgmental) Here are some answers that have emerged in the past 3-4 months.

William Stafford has a great line in one of his poems:  “If you don’t know the kind of person I am, and I don’t know the kind of person you are, a pattern that others made may prevail in the world.”  Right now, we have others prevailing in the world who are basically insane, so it’s becoming more and more urgent that we not only know who others are, we also know who we are, at the deepest level.  I believe this to be so urgent, I’m willing to share this story.  It is from the very bottom that we are able to create and describe our own internal moral compass.  Handy when there are no maps. Or when our so-called leaders have no morals at all.  Or when our own teachers are no longer around or it just gets too hard to cobble stuff together anymore.  And there is death, lurking.  Time is running out for all sorts of things, not only for me and perhaps for you, but for the planet and all beings.  Developing the capacity for wisdom and compassion is needed.

Pope Francis has a new book out, titled “The Name of God is Mercy“.  Pope Francis is the real deal.  He has this to say:  “Justice on its own is not enough.   With mercy and forgiveness, God goes beyond justice, God subsumes it and exceeds it in a higher event in which we experience love, which is at the root of true justice.”  If we are longing for true justice (not vengeance) and if we cannot accept ourselves with mercy and forgiveness, how can we offer that to anyone else? Or even to conceive of what justice might be?  Or care?

For Francis, the teaching is that we must be involved, we must be moved, we must feel compassion.  “This kind of compassion is needed today to conquer the globalization of indifference. ”  And meditation is a great tool to develop that compassion.  Which leads to wisdom, and developing a moral compass that is trustworthy and sane, a profound equanimity.

I am just learning how to embody this.  Mostly I fuck up and stumble around.  But the thread is strong.  Kidney cancer is riveting and debilitating, but its also a great teacher, keeping me focused and aware.

After decades of meditation and other practices, and getting to know death pretty darn well, at times there is a moment, an opening, and I see through all of this, the whole thing, and see and feel the shimmering grace that’s always there, the supreme joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frangible Murk

In this realm within which I currently reside, this frangible murk, there are no maps.  I can’t tell if I’m trudging towards an early death, as predicted by my Western docs, or clambering along a trail to a new found life as a wise old woman. Or both? It’s murky and I can’t see ahead, and at times can’t even tell up from down.  It’s dark in here.  At times the darkness prevails all the way into my soul and I long for death to end it: the abyss, the uncertainty, the effort of it all.

Light is there, too.  The light.  O the light.  Flashes from moments of kindness, my own and others.  A raindrop on a dogwood bud in the Fall, a globe of red and orange and green, trembling.  My dog Tara’s ear, like satin under my fingers.  The wind making our open windows rattle their storm dance late in the night.  The sound of the rain.  A burst of frail energy that shows me my next step.

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I’m reading voraciously: What Really Matter, by James Hollis, a Jungian, written in his own waning years.  He uses words I’ve never seen before, like “frangible” (that means fragile, or breakable).  Desuetude: I haven’t even looked that one up yet.  Many more. Hollis says feed your soul first.  If not, it will rebel and cause symptoms.  Do not comply with the shoulds of others.   He also writes that when we are dying, we are losing our “management systems” that have carried us through life for so long, and that makes us cranky.  Yup.  I am incredibly cranky lately.  If I’m cranky with you, don’t take it personally.

Just finished reading Mary Oliver’s Upstream, a collection of essays .  If I were rich, I’d send a copy to everyone I know.  Here’s a quote near the end.  “In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness.  Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit.  The sprawling darkness of not knowing.” She wonders if the light might be hope or faith; hope “far messier than faith must be.”

Then, last night, late, awakened by the storm, I heard the words as clearly as if someone had whispered them in my ear, “Be here now!”  Ah, Ram Dass.  Bless him.  But it wasn’t he who whispered.  I don’t know who it was.

But what I saw, or felt, in that moment, a moment of light, was a way out of the murk, a flashlight to illuminate my way.  The present moment opens to eternity – the only door, the portal.  I got a glimpse last night, and because it is a frangible murk, it’s already gone.  But the gift remains.

A messy hope, some wordless faith, a dropping away of the darkness that seems to result from a long illness.  As an idea, a platitude to offer someone who is suffering, well, it’s iffy.  “Be in the present moment, my dear.”  Meant well, surely.  But if the present moment, and all the zillions of moments before then, really suck, then it’s not so helpful. If you know me, please don’t give me this advice.  It doesn’t help.  I get cranky.

As a felt experience, elusive and grace driven, sensing the presence of eternal Love, well, that’s another story altogether.

Maybe what we can tell people who are suffering, you and me and all our loved ones, is to seek the portal to timeless joy, and let that joy carry us for a little while.  And that portal can only be found in the present moment.  Hiding in plain sight.

A wise young woman just told me tonight: “Don’t effort now.  Rest. You will recognize your next steps when you see them emerge into your life.  Trust yourself”.

Perhaps that is the map itself.  A frangible map, but a map.

 

 

A Life of Transfiguring Intensity

People often tell me  that I “look great”.  I think what they mean is “You don’t look like you are dying of cancer!”  I don’t.  That’s because I haven’t had surgery, chemo or radiation, I eat well, and am surrounded by loving care of every sort and on every dimension.  I live in the shimmering grace of gratitude and love.  And naps.  And my puppy, Tara.

People also tell me “we are all dying, you aren’t really all that different from any of us”, and what they mean, I assume,  is “What’s the big deal? None of us get out of here alive.”  Or, in the case of a few close neighbors, “We are all suffering from one thing or another, as we age. ”  A few might even add “Suck it up” but are too kind to say it out loud.

Now that I am living in the realm of “I will die someday”, rather than “I am going to die really soon!”, I can understand these comments better, those spoken or unspoken.  And let me try to tell you, these realms are in fact radically different.  Unless you have experienced the diagnosis of imminent death, I am not sure that there is a way for anyone to know this.  It’s not a concept, it’s a felt reality.

Eric and I have subscribed to a wonderful magazine named Parabola for decades.  Last summer, I picked up a copy of their Summer  2015 edition, about Angels and Demons.  There’s a wonderful quote on p. 93 that goes like this:

The denial of death is numbing.  But when I know for certain that I can disappear at any moment, it frees me from dullness.  Each instant becomes a possible starting point for something I have never done or said before.  The thought of dying opens a passage that, like the straight gate of the gospels, leads directly to a life of such transfiguring intensity, I feel as if I had risen from the dead.  

This is from a book by Carl Lehmann-Haupt, entitled The Crazy Thing.  Hope to read it soon.  He lived with a terminal diagnosis, then got better, but realized that he was becoming complacent again, and had lost something along the way.

The gift of a terminal diagnosis: a life of transfiguring intensity.  Yes.

At this moment in time, I have one foot in the “dying soon” camp and another foot in the “maybe I’ll live another 10 years” camp.  No way to know for sure.  I still feel like shit most of the time, so not much has changed there.  I’d like to keep the “transfiguring intensity”, however, from time to time anyway.  Instant clarity!

What I do notice is that I am beginning to get interested in life again, how I might be of service to others, seeing other people here in the village, taking care of business. (TCB for those of us who come out of the 60s!) Can’t do much about any of this yet, but I have my head up above the waters for the first time in about 5 years or more, taking a look around between naps.

Sending you all love.  Have patience with each other, because we never really know what someone’s journey is about, or where it may be going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery

Coming home the other day, I discovered what looked to me like a pile of sticks on our cottage front door, about eye level, not moving.  Hmmm…  I walked closer, quietly, and discovered to my deep and abiding surprise a praying mantis!  I know that nature talks to us just like the Shimmering in the written word, so after supper, I pulled open my animal discernment books.  What is the message?

The power of stillness.  Meditation. Chi Kung, using life force energy to strengthen and heal, directing it through the body’s organs and systems, empowering.  

One new friend here at Rose Villa heard about this, and sent me a link for more divination:

Praying Mantis animal spirit will often appear when calmness and contemplation are needed, not to sit still, but to reach a conclusion to a situation so decisive action may proceed. Even though Mantis is the symbol of meditation and contemplation she is also the symbol of action and decision-making.”

Praying Mantis animal spirit is often seen when major internal and external life changes are taking place.

Meaning of praying mantis on front door: “Praying Mantis at the front door of your home is a strong spiritual message, asking you to look within and approach your inner feelings for contemplation. Soon you will be asked to do something you are not comfortable with. Bringing about the need to change in this area, to give yourself a better life, by doing so you will expand and grow your higher consciousness.”

So, that’s quite a set of messages, all of which are pertinent and relevant.  Amazing.  Mouth open type amazing.

A few weeks ago I learned some new things about my cancer:

  1. “Nothing has changed since your diagnosis in February of 2015. No CT scan followup needed for a year, instead of 6 months.”  From my oncologist. Who reminded me, as always, that kidney cancer is slow growing, not to expect much.
  2. I am no longer eligible for hospice, whether I want them or not.  No one will state that I only have 6 months to live.  This shifted just a month ago.
  3. Two of the five lesions in my lungs have disappeared.  To me, that’s change, but hey, I am not an MD.  (Thank you Dr. Tenzin, I attribute this HUGE change to you and your magic Tibetan bowls on my chest! Hope to do some more.)
  4. No one is worried about my fatigue, as it’s not considered life threatening.  I do.  Hence the praying mantis, as my question has been: Now what?  Can I live like this much longer? How?
  5. I am no longer thinking of myself as living with a terminal diagnosis, but rather living with a chronic illness, at least until or if it shifts back.  No pain, just prone to sudden collapse  with extreme weakness, so I can’t plan, and need to rely on other people for nearly everything now.  A new realm, but it feels the same.
  6. I need help learning how to live with this, long term.  Help!

And then, an old friend of mine contacted me a few days ago, out of Facebook land.  She is an  acupuncturist, teaches medical chi gung, is a practicing Buddhist, and was a hospice nurse at one time.  Much to my everlasting astonishment and gratitude, she is coming next week and we’ll figure out a chi gung practice for me to blend in with the practices that I am already doing.  I am open to whatever she might want to share.

Another dear friend is excited to provide soul collage here at Rose Villa; all I have to do is set it up.  That is a wonderful discernment process and has helped me for years and years.

Eric and I are planning a short vacation up on Mt. Hood towards the end of the month; a time away with great sweetness.  I need to be in wilderness where I can think clearly.

Help is on the way!  (Wasn’t that John Kerry’s campaign slogan?  How did he get in here? Egads. )

May all of you find a way into your own next breath, your own path to joy. We stand with each other, we do.

 

 

 

Calling in More Support

Tuesday I met with my oncologist who revealed that my recent CT scan shows no change from 6 months ago. Actually, no change from 1 1/2 years ago, when I was first diagnosed. She agreed that I could go another year before the next CT scan, and warned me that kidney cancer is slow growing, something that she always does. In other words, don’t get your hopes up, you are fucking going to die of this thing, and don’t you forget it. Not quite that bad, but that is her essential message. She’s a nice woman and means well. She is limited in her imagination. That happens to some doctors, I’ve found.

Today I decided to enroll in hospice. Hang in there with me. No one, including me, (except maybe my oncologist, come to think of it) thinks that I will be dead in 6 months. However, I need more medical support. Hospice will send a nurse out to my cottage every two weeks, and I can talk about how the cancer is affecting my life, and get access to their extensive experience and resources. Medicare provides this for as long as I want it, given my diagnosis. So even if I live another 5-6 years, I can still be enrolled and not kicked out, as long as I am “not gaming the system”.

Eric really cannot do this for me; we neither know what the hell is going on at this point, or what to do about any of it. And my oncologist can only do surgery, chemo and radiation: the only 3 tools in her tool box. I can’t do any of that, for various reasons, and she agrees with me. So, this is my solution for now.

I am so tired it’s shocking and that hasn’t changed much. This is not the tiredness of being old, or run down. It’s very hard to describe. On some levels, I feel like I’m actually getting better, but the fatigue never shifts. It is crushing me slowly.

When dying is on the table, there is suddenly work to be done. Wills updated, various forms to fill out, powers of attorney and so on. I want to choose a cemetery with Eric, which naturally he doesn’t want to do. I look forward and have no idea how much time I have left. He looks forward and assumes I will be around for at least 5 years. Maybe, but maybe not. So the work is on multiple levels, and seems endless and overwhelming and I am desperate for help.

So, I’m going to try Hospice and see how it goes. They are open to alternative medicine, and support that, work with it all the time. This feels like a huge relief to me, even though it’s also disconcerting, a little scary. Reality check.

Am I still aware of the shimmering grace thing? Yes, I am. Am I grateful every day for small joys? You bet. Do I love all of you? Yes, I do. But I need some help in the medical realm. Even if it’s just for a few months until things even out again.

So, here goes.

PS: Remember “no change” report? I ordered the details from the CT scan, and one whole lesion (out of 5)in my lungs has disappeared. As did the cancer in the lymph nodes 6 months ago. Note to other cancer patients: try to always ask for the detailed reports. This is incredible news, and my doctor didn’t even mention it. I attribute this change in my lungs to the tremendous skill of my Tibetan doctor, Dr. Tenzin. And the Medicine Buddha and Green Tara, and all the prayers coming my way.

Grace, take 2.

The Shimmering Grace thing seems to be still working. I ordered a book quite awhile ago with nothing but the tittle to go on: The Power of Grace: Recognizing Unexpected Gifts on our Path.  (By David Richo)  Just shimmered at me while I was ordering another book on the Shambhala website.  It has been quietly living on our coffee table for months.

Meanwhile, I decided to have cataract surgery as a vote for even having a future in which to see anything, shimmering or not.  And now my next CT scan is on the immediate horizon, this Friday.  We’ll know next Tuesday what’s what.  The surgery went well a week ago but was stressful for a number of reasons, none of it too extreme. Nothing miraculous yet, but after my second eye is done, I am told I may be able to read without glasses.  We’ll see.  I haven’t been able to read without glasses since the 4th grade, so that would be fun.

My life is extremely limited now.  I have about 4 hours of energy a day.  Mostly I do laundry, make the bed, clean up the kitchen, water the gardens, comb out more loose fur from Tara’s heavy coat, walk to the village to pick up our mail, and I’m done – down for a 3 hour nap.  Talking on the phone is okay if it’s only one or two people, but in person visits wear me out after about one hour or so.  Usually in the evening I have another 2 hours or so of energy left.  Meeting with any groups over 4 people are a challenge.  Fun, and I love it, but still, a challenge energetically speaking.  So, living in a life the size of a postage stamp!  It’s still all good because it is, well, living.

So many people want to visit me now, it’s both daunting and also amazing to me.  I have no idea how to triage this, and often I actually just forget who wants to see me.  I need a list!  I can only realistically visit with one or two people a week, or less.  For people coming from out of town, we make room somehow.  Some of these journeys are perilous in nature so we honor them as best we can, floored by so much love.

What I’ve noticed is that people who do visit tell me, with some degree of surprise I guess, that I “look so well”.   Even the Tibetan doctor Dr. Nida said that my life force pulse is strong.  Good to hear.  More on that encounter another time.

My new, internally guided map making ground to a halt, though. I stopped the intense efforting I was doing, that was so successful, and then shut down, started eating chocolate chip cookies and reading novels.  And yes, resting deeply.

And that’s where the book, The Power of Grace, comes in.  I picked it up, finally.

Here’s the quote that caught my attention:  “Too much reliance on effort is one danger (a whole section on that, much to my surprise.  This book is exactly addressing where I am right now.)  but another is too little trust in the need for it.  Grace loses its meaning when it does not stir and spur us.  We then believe we lead a charmed life instead of being required to lead a responsible life.  When grace and effort work in an integrated way, we see that grace is a cue to us to exert ourselves.  We can be so pleased with grace, however, that we become overconfident.  We imagine that grace will keep coming our way with no follow-up needed on our part.  This is quietism. ”

Which is the opposite of activism, excess focus on effort.  Some have an idea that their effort will result in merit, which this author discounts pretty easily, both historically and throughout various spiritual paths.  Grace is pure gift, it’s not a reward for effort.  You don’t earn it.

The way out of this is to cultivate universal love, beyond merit or demerit, beyond too much effort or too little effort –  give myself utterly to loving -kindness, and let my heart lead the way, one step at a time.

Well, okay then.  I wish I would remember this, and not keep forgetting.  But I do.

About the upcoming CT scan?  I am completely freaked out.  Last time, in February, I went from a Stage IV to a Stage III.  This time?  Who knows.  I have some reason to believe that it will not be good news.  And also some reason to believe that it might be a fucking miracle.  I don’t think there’s much room for it being both/and but again, who knows.

Sending all of you oodles of love, and deep respect for your journeys, whatever they are.  Stay well.  Follow your heart.