The World is On Fire: Everyday Magic, Day 983

I sit on the morning porch, the hedge apples across from me growing into softball-sized green brains, soon to be heavy enough that we’ll need to avoid parking our cars under them. The birds to the west chirp, interrupting the steady buzz of cicadas and crickets to the east. All is apparently as peaceful as the cat asleep on the chair beside me, but of course, this is just one moment in a world on fire.

For the last three weeks, the Amazon burns, and just today, according to The New York Times, more than 500 Brazilian government employees signed a letter of warning that the country’s environmental protections could easily collapse. The leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro and others has fanned the flames of land-grabbing to the extent that over 27,400 fires are burning right now. While the reality about Amazon fires is far more complicated that news bites about the lungs of the world burning (see this recent article in Forbes for more), the undeniable reality, seen from space even, shows the massive expanse of the fires. Political fires between the G7 and the Brazilian president burn their own through-lines without any clarity of what can be done and if it can done soon enough.

Meanwhile, humongous fires burning for over three months in Siberia, a result of climate change, send “a cloud of soot and ash as large as the countries that make up the entire European Union” through the northern reaches of Russia, according to the BBC. Thousands of migrant children, separated from their parents and imprisoned in detention centers, are suffering not just the immediate loss of a sense of safety and nurturance but developing long-term traumatic effects that may well greatly diminish their potential and well-being. The politics of polarity seems to gather strength, just as Tropical Storm Dorian — predicted to be a powerful hurricane soon — pitting us against each other a thousand ways each day.

The world is on fire in ways that seem to be and may well be worse than ever before — especially with the speedy unfolding of climate changes already impacting our planet and threatening to turn forests into deserts and nations into wastelands — yet it’s also true that the world is always on fire. I was thinking of how my friend Judy, a Zen master and fellow lover of the perfect bagel, once told me this over 30 years ago, so I searched for the origin of this reality and found the Ādittapariyāya Sutta: The Fire Sermon, given by Buddha to 1,000 monks. Part of it reads:

Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

This makes sense to me, and yet, and yet, and yet: how do I reconcile the real fires — the deep and abiding suffering happening right now to children in detention facilities or in the Amazon to countless animals (including humans) and plants, and the roots of this suffering growing exponentially to all our detriment — with the eternal fire of being alive without getting numbly complacent (or worse, complacently cynical) or hopeless (or worse, hopelessly immobilized, kind of a trap for those of us who are privileged enough to not be in the fire at the moment)?

I don’t know. I only know how to sit here at this moment, take in the volume of cicadas, growing louder as the heat rises, and feel such heartbreak and gratitude for this world.

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A Quiet Summer Evening With a Side of Peaches: Everyday Magic, Day 982

The katydids unify their song, an extended whistle-like tune with small melodic indentations. The cat who shouldn’t be outside is outside anyway, meowing that he wants to be back inside but not really. A motorcycle over the hill and across the field vanishes its song into the higher-pitched hum of the plane overhead. Then it is quiet or at least relatively so.

This has been a summer of porch-sitting, and as eye recovery and associated surprises and lessons continue their  roaring hum, I’ve done a lot of porch listening, like right now on this perfect summer evening as the tree frogs shake their maracas in staccato bursts and the fan continues its wind skimming whisper. I pick up my glass of water and take in the brightening and darkening blues of the western sky, rolling quickly toward one uniform color.

Meanwhile, in the backyard, the peaches — sprung from two volunteers trees that came up out of the compost pile years ago — are showing off their fruitful exuberance. An hour ago, I ran outside to take their picture, naked but for a pair of Crocs, while the bathtub filled, picked one small peach, and took a bite. It was delicious and tangy with sunlight while grasshoppers arced around us.

From all directions, summer’w still summering although it’s showing signs, false ones of course, of slowing down and cooling off. But here in the center of this moment and continent, I close my eyes, breathe slowly and deliberately, and land right where the porch, the peace trees, the cat, and I dwell, someplace east of understanding where the earth sings a lullaby to  the wounds of the world.

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When the World Opens Its Heart to My Ears, Cicadas and All: Everyday Magic, Day 979

It has been a time out of time, or perhaps more accurately, a time landed right in time. Unable to use my eyes as much, I realize how most of my waking hours are encompassed in seeing. Like Dracula, I also have to forgo direct sunlight and generally aim my days toward deep shade. Add to this the pain (thankfully very much receding!) of this eye cancer odyssey, and I burrow deeper into the dark, so far from my regular natural habitat. But there’s nothing like pain and healing to guide an anxious mind out of its usual hamster cycles and into the real.

For a writer who loves reading, movies, watching James Corden Cross-walk theater videos, and visually scanning the world for so much of my orientation, this has also been a deal. But for all ills, there are remedies, and the best one I discovered is to go outside about 8:30 p.m. each night to the chartreuse padded chair Daniel once got at a thrift store for his first college dorm room, and sit still on the night porch as dusk travels to dark. It’s taken a while for me to stop resisting what this body has been telling me lately in no uncertain terms: shut up, and close your eyes already. But when I do, the rewards are immense.

In July, twilight comes calling with a cast of thousands. Sitting out there last night with Ken, my eyes closed for an hour, we counted at least six different kinds of cicadas, starting with the low soft click of the green winged cicada, then the back and forth mild buzzsaw of Tibicen bifidus. Eventually, we got to the steady sweet roar of the plains cicada, a sound I describe as he wheels of a wagon moving across the prairie although the wheels, spokes, and wagon are made of cicadas, and of course, the wagon is hauling cicadas. (If you want to hear these and others, check out this site).

Tree frogs leapt into the fray for short or long stretches, and of course, the crickets showed up as they always do when it comes to getting any party started. These thousands of insects and amphibians not only coordinated their wild rushes into circle hums or steady chirps of green joy with their fellow specie comrades, but they also blended their sounds — something beyond and encompassing the essence of music — altogether. The plains cicada stretched their journey song into multiple cycles, then stopped on a dime. The tree frogs jumped in the gap, then paused. Suddenly, everyone from all directions started again.

We listened, my dreams merging me with the sounds as I dosed in the chair. I wanted to lie down to sleep in the house, but Ken urged me to wait for the telltale call of night, heralded by the Katydid. “When will the Katydid start?” I asked, and just then, the Katydid whisper circled over us. “Listen carefully,” he said. “There are two Katydids,” which we quickly named Katy Did It and Katy Didn’t. (Hear Katydids here).

Back inside, I sat in the beautiful healing darkness, serenaded by the hum of the air-conditioner, the snore of the dog, the padded rush down the halls of the running of the cats. From outside, I can hear the barred owl calling. There’s also the drumming of my hands on the keyboard, writing this before I forget, mostly with my eyes closed while the world opens its heart to my ears.

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Preparing to Be Unprepared and Other Quirks of Cancer: Everyday Magic, Day 975

Over udon soup and sushi at my favorite Japanese restaurant, Nomi said health challenges taught her this: “Prepare to be unprepared.” This pithy phrase speaks to just about everything I know about cancer treatment, which often feels like a too-fast or too-slow medical excursion in an unknown desert with a big bottle of water and no map.

As I get ready for surgery at high noon on Friday to implant a teeny-tiny gold bowl bearing radiation under my right eye, I realize how little I know what I’m preparing for.  I understand that the implant will be removed June 19th, then the tumor will dissolve over the coming months, but there’s so much I don’t know. I haven’t met anyone who has had this procedure or rare cancer (1 in 100,000), which gives me a dazed and daunting sense of reality. Will it feel wildly-uncomfortable or painful? Will I still be me while harboring a radioactive time machine for five days? Having a good imagination and a talent for anxiety easily sends me to the races, up the wall, and across the living room with questions.

At the same time, I know such questions are based on a false premise: that there are relevant answers to be had for the cost of obsession and insomnia. Having had a very popular cancer, breast cancer, 17 years ago, I should know better. Back then, I assured myself that I would simply do what my mother and aunt did: a lumpectomy with a side of radiation, then I would be home-free. Other people’s breast cancer stories gave me more varieties of what to expect. All of this worked like fake scaffolding: it seemed to lift me up to high windows to peer into the future, giving my trembling feet a false sense of solid ground. But what happened, like what happens for most of us (even when the treatment turns out to be what we expected), was totally different.

There’s nothing like embodied experience to show us the power of the real. My breast cancer was more advanced than I thought. Chemo, which I previously believed was something I would never ever do, turned out to be relatively okay, punctuated by bouts of annoying ailments and culminating into a lot of exhaustion at the end of six months of treatment. Surgeries were moment-by-moment adventures of surrender and recovery, fear and triumph, thirst and replenishment, sometimes with nausea, a bit of pain, or a rash (guess who turned out to be allergic to morphine?), but overall better than I expected. Over and over, I was dazzled by the body’s ability to heal, but even more so, by the many ways our friends and community fed and held our family (including the kids, all  young at the time) in the 14 months between the initial diagnosis and final surgery.

My previous experience doesn’t mean much when it comes to any predictability, except for this: I know even more than ever how much the way ahead is made of mystery and love, prayer and the magic of deep healing. I happily take in all the prayers coming my way, whether from Christians invoking Jesus, Jews singing the Mi Sheberach, or Buddhists chanting. I’m learning to avoid what will inflame worry (especially 2 a.m. research missions on the internet) and keep me from being present enough to be with all that comes.

I sit outside as much as possible and listen to music, including the continual birdsong and wind-in-trees rhythms of the here and now in this beautiful time. I write my intentions for this surgery. I’m vow to continue giving myself willingly and completely to the best abilities of my doctors and medical team. I stand on the back desk late at night with Ken’s hands on my shoulders as we thank the ancestors and land for all the guidance we find here. I laugh so hard while cleaning out my refrigerator with Anne because now it’s so beautiful. I do long-distance guided imagery with my energy healer. I pet the dog and look into his eyes. I visit my therapist a lot. I talk with my kids and best beloveds, ending most conversations with “I love you.”

And I let myself feel the fear when it swims or storms through, reminding myself of what my integrative physician, Neela Sandal, said to me yesterday, “Breathing is prayer.” Maybe that’s the best way I can prepare to be unprepared.

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Naming the Turtles on a Healing Journey: Everyday Magic, Day 974

Meet Orlando Bloom!

Throughout my healing journey — the cancer diagnosis and visits with three oncologists,  the big-time scans and fears, the  joys and reliefs, the waiting and preparation — I’ve been naming turtles. While this might be true metaphorically, it’s also truly happening beyond the world of symbol,  sorrow, and surprise. I have a friend, Ben Reed, a professor at Washburn University, who has been tracking and studying ornate box turtles in southeast Kansas, and he’s given me the honor of naming each turtle. Because Ben is a turtle whisperer, he’s kept me busy.

It started when Ben dropped by one day with a beautiful large female he found, then numbered to track for his research. I told him she was surely worthy of a name made of letters, not just numbers, and he agreed. That was last summer, and this spring, he found Lucille again because of the transmitter he attached to her last year. He also re-found Samantha, Theodore, and the three-toed box turtle Rudolph. Lately, because of rain in biblical proportions, he’s found a bumper crop of new turtles for me to name.

I named Demeter, Persephone, and Priscilla — a trio of goddesses — the day after my brand new ocular oncologist said there was a good-sized melanoma in my right eye. I was sad and exhausted that morning, and it helped to distract myself by thinking of turtle names for three strong, old wise women turtles, or maybe it wasn’t a distraction at all, but a way to take in the larger  breathing and changing world.

Ben and Ursula

In between phone calls with my regular oncologist’s office to set up scans and tests, I was further connected to this bigger world by naming Yoda although all turtles look like Yoda. Then again, many of these turtles also look like Gandalf (the Green), which I  bestowed on a very old male, surely is the incarnation of the previous Gandalf. I mean, if he can keep go from Gandalf the Gray to Gandalf the White in one lifetime, surely, he can come back as a turtle in another.

Just home one afternoon after a much-needed session with my therapist, I had more turtles to name: Leah, from the Old Testament, who Jacob had to marry to get to his much-desired Rachel. I always thought Leah had a bad rap, so why not let her be a vibrant turtle of intricate patterns?  There were also two teenage turtles, both female, so I went with Amber and Topaz, assistants to the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. I played one of them in the only play I was ever cast in (and not for a lack of auditioning through my childhood and teenage years), a small production held at a camp I attended when I was 11 years old.

The night before my PET scan, when I was pacing the deck talking with friends to calm myself from anxiety and a healthy dose of claustrophobia, I was interrupted by the need to name turtles: one very old, so I went with Saul, an old Jewish man from Brooklyn, Sparkle for a lively young female, and Ponderosa for a sunny young male.  The next morning,  buoyed by energy healing from my friend Ursula in Germany and a good dose of pharmaceuticals, plus a lot of slow breathing to relax myself. I also was lifted by the thought of naming more turtles, which was helpful since later that day, Ben texted me with a magical female I named Ursula.

Yoda, but then all turtles look like Yoda

After the MRI a week later, another big challenge for me involving a small tube, big prayers, Versed and fentanyl, I was so relieved to have gotten through that I was utterly delighted to name Orion after the constellation of the same name.

Later, before driving to the ocular oncologist with a fear storm in my digestive system because of how suddenly my eyesight diminished, I named Thor and Odin. Such mythological names helped me envision greater courage. Coming home that day, Ken and I were greatly relieved to discover that the tumor wasn’t growing, and my eyesight was being impinged instead by fluid build-up in my eye (made worse by, guess what?, stress!). As my eyes slowly undilated from Anime-sized pupils to more normal ones, I got to name a large and beautiful female Leslie Jones (from SNL fame) because badassery is also the name of the game now.

There’s also a pregnant Chrysanthemum and Clematis from a day the turtles from a day I was in a botanical mood,, and Sunshine  who I named when a storm was bearing down, both around and within me. And let us know forget Goldy and Silverado, two western-style guys (at least how they looked to me) with yellow and golden touches.

Demeter, Persephone, and Priscilla: Three Goddess Gals

All these turtles, even the ones who struggle, seem to have a beautiful grip on the life force. When Ben found a female turtle upside down in a just-burned field, so light because of near-starvation because of an invasion of bot flies, we both agreed she needed an especially strong name, so I suggested Herculia. He brought her to his lab, where she became a mascot for the Washburn biology department, everyone cheering her on after Ben removed multiple bot flies, parasitic jerks who has destroyed her back legs and possibly her digestive tract. He didn’t expect her to survive, but six weeks later, she’s still alive, and just yesterday, she finally ate something of substance, a worm, so maybe she’ll make it after all. While Ben will need to make some kind of wheel prostheses for her back legs, she may one day propel on her own.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a turtle biologist to see the parallels between us messy humans and these ancient and resilience beings, although I’m sure the turtles outrun us in patience and even grace. Come fall, they go underground to hibernate through the winter, then emerge into the mud, rain, and wind of messy and changeable spring, finding their footing through storms and droughts, trials and tenderness. However the weather and light shift, they persevere.

Turtles pre-date humans, and from what little I know, their ancestor proto-turtles may be as much as 220 million years old.  Ben explains that many species “are virtually unchanged morphologically since the dinos, which is pretty incredible.”

Yes, incredible indeed, and so is simply holding a turtle, marveling at their ability to live below and among us,  navigating water and land, earth and fire with a hard shell that tells their stories of age and art and inside that shell, a beating heart committed to life. Surely we are all, turtles all the way down, on our own healing journeys, so let us pause and name what gives us strength and sight.

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