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.

 

 

“Die Wise” Book Review

After reading the book Die Wise, by Stephen Jenkinson, I wrote a review for the professional journal for Hakomi therapists, called The Forum.  It’s an academic journal, so I am pleasantly surprised that they accepted my submission and published it.

Here it is.  If you wanted to read the book, maybe this will inspire you to do so, or give you enough that you can move on to whatever is next in your reading pile.

Book Review

 Jenkinson, Stephen. (2015). Die wise: A manifesto for sanity and soul.  Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. (382 pages).

Jenkinson, Stephen.  Griefwalker: a film about the redemptive power of deep love for life, when life glimpses its end. Produced by www.alivemind.net. DVD, 70 minutes.

Jenkinson, Stephen. How it all could be: A workbook for dying people and for those who love them. Published by www.orphanwisdom.com. 37 pages. (“Something that can be useful in the sorrowing heat of the moment, and in the time before and after”).

 

In early February of 2015, a doctor told me that I had Stage IV Kidney Cancer, and that I had about 2 months to 2 years to live. In my travels in this new-to-me realm of “imminent death,” I encountered Stephen Jenkinson and his book Die Wise. I devoured his eloquent language, his wisdom and experience that he shares so thoughtfully and carefully. His teachings fit seamlessly into the Hakomi Principles and deserve to be introduced in the Forum for others who may be approaching death, or those who have clients, family or friends who may be.

Jenkinson has a MA in theology from Harvard University and a MA in social work from the University of Toronto. He speaks around the world, is consultant to palliative care and hospice organizations, and is the founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Canada.

For Jenkinson, high tech health care has become an undeclared war on dying itself. “If you can, you should” (p.23) is the mantra in our death phobic culture in North America especially, meaning you should do whatever you can to continue living, no matter what, no matter how much violence you do to the dying person, their body and their very soul. Dying wise goes against attempts to control and domesticate dying including palliative care. It is a way of redeeming our way of dying that is the right of everyone, a moral obligation, a political act, an act of Love, spiritual activism, and yes, immensely hard labor. Therein lies his manifesto.

Instead of a sedated, managed, defeated dying, (Cope, Hope, Dope) Jenkinson is talking about purposed, meaningful dying that roots us into our life in a way that nothing else can do. He doesn’t say not to use pain meds if they are needed, but to be mindful of each choice, each prayer, and what it accomplishes in a death phobic culture.

So, what would dying look like from a Hakomi perspective? We seek non-violence, organicity, a body-mind connection that is trustworthy, mindfulness in and of the process, and unity. That is precisely what Jenkinson is teaching once you read between the lines.  He also includes: village mindedness; caring for our ancestors and our dead, weaving them in our lives; breaking the trance of our death phobic culture; seeing dying as an angel, rather than an executioner, something you live, wrestle with, share and can teach to others.

Die Wise is not an easy book to read, especially for someone with a terminal diagnosis. He offers not even a thread of wiggle room. For example, people who are dying often ask for “more time.” He thoroughly demolishes that idea. If you get more time, you get more time to die, more death, “temporary citizenship in the Land of the Living.” (p. 133) He titles one chapter The Tyrant Hope. What he means is that if you are living focused on hope, you are living in the future, and are not present to your life that you actually still have. His alternative is to live hope free, which is a subversive move towards lucidity, a revolution of sorts.

He talks about Word Voodoo: if you say it, you can make it (death) happen, so no one talks to the dying person about their approaching death. No one will name it for fear they might make it happen. I’ve walked with some good friends during their dying time who carried this view. There was no way to be with them in any level of honesty and devotion. Jenkinson offers no place to hide.

Even the notion of “quality of life” as a deciding factor in dying is up for grabs with him. He believes that quality of life is a principle strategy in our culture’s project of dying–not dying. It enforces the addiction we have to competence, mastery and autonomy. It doesn’t serve the dying, who are anything but competent, and quite literally out of control. “If there were no palliative care, what would the arc of dying look like?” he asks. What if we respect the process itself, and listen deeply to what might be needed here? This is right up Hakomi alley.

Our culture says, according to this man who has worked in the “death trade” for decades, that we can die not dying. Dying, instead, in his view, must be allowed to change literally everything. As a person living this through right now, I have to say it really, really does change everything. Staying mindful to this cataclysmic shifting is challenging, and hard work. Jenkinson is a trustworthy guide.

The wisdom we seek can be found in suffering, from being broken-hearted, which for him is a skill. Wisdom comes from learning grief, and from practicing grief. Who asks us to be fulfilled in our dying, or to even thrive in our dying, or to be good at it? We need a faithful witness to our dying, not someone who will banish what is hard and demanding.

In Ron Kurtz’s language, we need someone with Loving Presence who can make being vulnerable and incompetent, safe; someone from whom we can receive comfort; someone who is not there to fix what cannot be fixed; someone who is aware that death goes beyond just humans, to trees, rivers, stones, even mountains. We need to proceed as if there is merit in knowing death well.

Jenkinson asks huge questions with a rare precision. He asks the question: When in human history did the death phobia begin? It’s not so in other cultures. How “natural” is it to be afraid of dying?

What if this insistence on dying being a trauma is the traumatizing thing about dying in our culture? High tech dying turns you into a victim. That’s not true for all cultures. In my opinion, high tech tends to do this to birth as well.

A large portion of Jenkinson’s book is about our dead: they are “a rumor, unclaimed and unknown.” Their bones are somewhere else. It is the orphan story of the Americas, which is a type of homelessness. The alchemy of belonging comes when we plant our dead and their bodies sustain that place. In our history we have slavery, people fleeing, flight as culture, no bone yard in common. People internalize “home” when they are homeless. That leads to a culture of autonomy, self-sufficiency, lonely multi-cultural cities. The outcome for the dead is, mostly, unknown. Even our Gods are homeless, not of a place. Even our foundational story, the Garden of Eden, speaks of the loss of home, the loss of eternity, of death. Indigenous cultures tend to have Gods who live on the same land that they do, embedded into the very earth.

When my mother was dying in our home, about two weeks out, she suddenly declared that she wanted to go home. No amount of saying that this was her home now, no amount of saying she was going home in her dying, appeased her. She had told me my entire life that she wanted to be cremated, and that’s what we had planned. But now she wanted to be buried, she wanted to go home, to Ohio I guess, where her family and her ancestors were buried.

Part of our fear of dying for Jenkinson is that the dying begin to understand that their very reality is pending. “They are on the Lost Nation highway, even as dying, not yet dead,” disappearing from the memory of those left behind. (p. 279) Amnesia is built into our care of our dead. They don’t need us anymore. They are mysteriously completed and self sufficient, above the fray. That is power, in a culture like ours. How will I be remembered, if at all, I wonder? Do I just disappear from life, from the human sphere into the realm of “the dead” that almost no one even thinks about?

Now that I am dying, I find myself turning to face those from whom I come, my ancestors, my own “dead,” trying to learn from them. We don’t treat our dead with any degree of hospitality, usually.

“Dying means to be wrecked on schedule.” (p. 300) Being sad is not being depressed, not something to fix. We need courage to stop trying not to die, and to relax into it. Dying can be achieved, not endured as we tend to see it. It can be learned. We can die wise. Dying is the time to untie the links of strength and competence that bind us to our bodies. Stopping eating is to “vote no” for keeping on. (p. 309) It turns the tide.

To die wise, we can “faithfully report on our ebbing days, the sway of it.” (p. 310) My husband will likely not have an escort when it’s his turn, a sorrow that brings me to my knees. Children need to know, too, to begin to get a feel for it.

“If you are attending a death, bring a soft focus, a slow gait in your thinking and your speech. Stay willing, be supple in your understanding, ask your eyes to stay open, wonder what is needed of you.” (p. 314) As Hakomi therapists, we have practice in working in the non-verbal realm, so this will help a great deal.

Dying people are busy trying to find their way out of their bodies and out of their lives, and there is scant language for this. (p. 315) I remember my Mom late one night describing being in a tunnel, about half way through. She had a new doctor “on the other side, who had done all the paperwork,” and now she wanted to know if she could turn around and come back. Exhausted, I told her that I didn’t know, but I would see her in the morning, or not, depending on her choice. We said good night and goodbye. And she was all sparkle in the morning; she did figure it out. She lived another few months after that. When my beloved companion David died, he was radiant and said that he could see the light all around.

“When dying is understood as justice, mercy, a sign of compassion that is stitched into the fabric of life itself, that can bring us into a world-loving, community-serving love of life.” (p.350) Then we can die wise.

“Grief isn’t an intrusion into the natural order of things. It is the natural order of things.” P. 367. It’s the ability of seeing the story of the thing, the whole story. We are grief impaired, grief illiterate. We learn instead how to manage it, resolve it, get over it. It’s not just the feeling of sorrow, or guilt. It is knowledge and understanding that each of us is obligated to live, for our life. “How you die grows kinship, a chance to practice unlikely gratitude, a way of loving,” and love is a way of grieving. (p.378) Jenkinson steps into the Unity principle easily and often. He is an unusual man, with language that delves deep into the heart of things, a poet, a storyteller, and a fearless angel of death.

 

The DVD Griefwalker is a lush, marvelous video of Jenkinson and his work, his language, his teaching. Again, there is no hiding place, no way to avoid death in this. He helps us take a long, deep drink into what it is and what it could be, how we got here, and what needs to change for it to be more organic.

His workbook, How It All Could Be brings a whole series of questions to the table. Here is his dedication:

This was made for all those who have come to me questioning, sorrowing, fighting and trying to lay low while their lives go as lives go, for the families and friends of those who didn’t live to see this done, for all those who asked for it. It was made with gratitude to the teachers and great rememberers out on the dangerous and darkening roads, where it all lives.

It’s a study guide to Die Wise, a shower of questions that incite deep reflections, conversations with shared ideas, delving deeper still into this concept, this manifesto of dying wise. He teaches that you wrestle the angel of death “by grief, by wonder, by courting uncertainty, by falling in love again with being alive, this time with the taste of its end strongly on your tongue.” It’s part study guide and part workbook, part meditation, and part kitchen table conversation. He wants us to work at this. It’s quite grand, and I recommend it to those who read his book.

As for me, I have only been using alternative medicine, and I am now, a little over a year later, a Stage III cancer patient. We don’t know what that means exactly, but I am learning to live hope free. I’m putting language to this journey in my blog www.SusanShawnAlive.wordpress.com. I keep my eyes open, and I’m learning how to die wise, as best I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Not This Time

About 1 pm today, I lay down on our bed.  I could feel how much effort was in my system, so I let it all go, just lowered down into the realm below effort, desperate for rest.  And felt my death there, a palpable thing.  So tired, I couldn’t imagine doing anything, even the thought of calling for help was too much.  I looked into death, my death.  Tears, grief, but even that was too much effort.  I thought of people I love, and people who love me, and realized that I, in that moment, didn’t have the energy to do anything at all.

I eventually called Eric and shocked us both by how weak I was, I am.  He said he had to finish a meeting, do something else, and then he would head home.  He knew it was real.  I called my dear friend Anatta, who was here in about 5 minutes or so.  She held me tight; it felt like I was leaving out of every pore, I needed an anchor.  She knew exactly what to do and kept me safe.

1. Here’s what I learned about dying, today.  It seems to me that there is some kind of glue that holds us all together, me and everyone else, all beings.  That glue, whatever it is, is beginning to loosen in me, and I can feel that happen.  I guess when that glue is gone, we  die.  It’s connected to life force, to chi, to our “give a shit” quotient, to quote the author of Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson.  From all that I can tell at the moment, there is a little more space in my system as a result.  Not a bad feeling, so far.

2. My niece gave birth recently.  Her water broke, and the birthing process began. Once that happens, there is no stopping that baby!  My sense today is that there may be a similar event that begins the dying process, after which there is no stopping it.  Not sure what that might be yet, but I could sense it today, a presence, an idea, a concept that rings true to me.  That did not happen, not this time.  But its coming.  I thought I might be able to live through this cancer, to live a long time.  Perhaps I will.  But at the moment, it feels pretty unlikely.

I spent an evening with Stephen Jenkinson a week or so ago, while he was in Portland.  Me and several hundred others, at the Clinton Street Theatre.  He talks about how we can love each other by putting language to dying, sharing that, bringing it into our culture as a natural part of life, learning how to do it, and loving each other by teaching how it is, how to do it.  Braiding it into our lives.

People who see me often say, O what a great attitude you have, or you look wonderful, you look strong, or you sound great.  What they are seeing or hearing is my effort.  What I glimpsed today is what is underneath.

I am trying to stay mindful and to share this holy and marvelous and scary and heartbreaking process as best I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tricky Place

On Tuesday I drove out to Maplewood, through the trees, to see my acupuncturist, Geri Ota, a healer.  When she felt my pulses, she said, “Hmmm…. well, the underlying kidney chi (or energy) is fragile and weak.  But the pulse above that is strong.  This is a very tricky place for you.”

Yup.  It is indeed.  Here’s why.

Both these energy streams exist in me at the same time.  It’s a little like having one foot in the realm of death, and another foot in the river of life.  It’s not that I live in one and then the other, shifting from foot to foot, but rather that it is I’m living in both realms at the same time, in very real ways.  This is not a theoretical situation, this is a physical reality.

My awareness does seem to shift from foot to foot, however.  Whole days go by, a week or two, when I feel myself edging towards death.  I don’t feel death itself, just a slippage in that direction, a lessening of the “give-a-shit” energy that Stephen Jenkinson talks about in his book Die Wise.  For example, I see that I’m eating more sugar than I should be, and inside I hear voices saying “Who cares?  You’re dying anyway – enjoy!”  That’s just a small example, but there are ramifications everywhere – feeling too sick to go to fitness class or yoga class, too sick to take a walk, too sick to go outside and look at flowers, too sick to remember how to find joy in life itself.  Too sick.  Just too sick.  That’s the realm of my death, and it’s very real.  I think that’s the weak kidney chi that Geri identified on Tuesday.

But running concurrently is the river of life, which recently is beginning to look more interesting to me.  After my diagnosis, moving to Rose Villa, reorienting myself to life in community and adjusting my life to living with cancer, I am just now pulling my head up above water and taking a look around.  What does life look like from here?  I have volunteered to be a “Comfort Companion” here at Rose Villa, agreeing to take an evening shift if needed to sit with a resident who may then be dying alone at the Health Center.  I volunteered to help support a local candidate running for Congress who identifies with Bernie Sanders and pledges to support Bernie if they get elected.  I am eyeing our back yard and find myself planning a garden there for the first time since we moved here, with fruit trees, berries, grapes and vegetables as well.  I can hardly wait to tackle that.  I want to attend to some papers and a book that I have written that needs to be published in some form.

So, which realm am I in?

I am in both at the same time.  And it’s tricky.  She really nailed that one.  I cannot survive if I am only in the realm of death, it’s an oxymoron.  But I am not well enough to step fully into the river of life that is brimming with ideas and options.  I can see the river now at least; I couldn’t even see it a month ago.  But I can’t quite reach it, either.

It’s tricky.  I can’t reach out too far, and fall.  Nor can I live too small, and not grow stronger.  Reminds me of a time, years ago, when I was learning how to run long distance.  I’d just keep running, daily, and very gradually I could run a little longer, until finally I could run 5 miles with power.

Maybe what I can do is just take one small step a day towards the river of life.  Maybe I’ll walk down, quite literally, to the river.  And say hello.  And see how strong I am now.

And therein lies the problem.  The energy above says “Wow, what a great idea!  Let’s do that!”, and the weak energy below says “Are you kidding?  What happens if you get down there and you collapse?  Or fall? ” And because both voices have complete integrity, reliable experience, and my well being in hand, I have no fucking idea what to do.

It’s tricky.  And another stop on this journey. I’m just taking a look around, reporting back to all of you who read this.  I want to say that all will be well, not to worry, but the truth is I have no idea.

I actually think that this is, in the long haul, a hopeful sign that I am getting better.  My job now is to be respectful of the process and to listen carefully every step of the way.  And to keep both of these energies communicating with each other, creating equanimity.

As Eric, my husband says, “It will be what it will be.  And we’ll face it together.”