Each day I crave a clear view of a clear sky, but fog, snow, sleet, rain, freezing rain, and variety packs of all this percipitation at once fills the well-hidden vistas. Narrower perspectives of what’s out there push me inside and inward to what’s in here. My technicolor dreams, on the other hand, go go big screen and high speed, involving shadow cities of places I thought I knew and a conveyor belt of swiftly-changing characters, many of whom I don’t know. Then again, I’m also sleeping more, giving those dreams extra room to get wild.
Like many of us, this is the time of year I drink a lot of hot tea, craving little butter cookies to dunk in that tea, and at night, hunker down under blankets and heater cats (real cats, real warmth) surrounded by a herd of animals, now including two dogs, two kitties, and one husband. I’m more aware than usual of the air, sometimes too cold or too dry, and right now, composed of clouds too close to the ground. Last night, I dreamed I looked out a high window that doesn’t actually exist on the imaginary third or fourth story of my house to see the ground, faded into brownish green with small patches of snow, then when I looked again, greening up like it will do in a few months. I looked away and saw a blossoming tree, something like a magnolia, but when I woke into darkness and chill, such a tree seemed preposterous.
Because the scene is so monochromatic, I’m drawn more to black and white movies, last night Mr Deeds Goes to Town, which also has plenty of foggy, soft-edges scenes that even lower the volume of New York City 1930’s lights and action to a whisper. I’m hugging the edge of home more too, forgoing leaving the house with its heart-rushing foray down a drive composed of layered snow, frozen rain, sleet, and more rain. Instead, I bake or ignore the urge to bake, plan sewing projects, talk with friends on the phone, and make a whole lot of soup.
But that’s all for the good because in the cave of winter we’re meant to do some hibernation. Although it doesn’t feel like it, spring will come soon enough with its fast-moving flowers. Now is the time is quiet down and listen to the space between not enough and too much. That’s more than enough.
In the middle of the night, Ken and I learned a whole new wrinkle of what “in sickness and in health” means as well as a new use for leftover Manischewitz Passover wine. As with most things, it began with something very small: a bug, but not just any bug. This one was tiny enough to fit with room for rustling its wings at high speed somewhere in the nether regions of my right ear.
I woke up, then woke Ken up. At first, we thought it was just a tiny moth, but eventually, we concluded it was either a blind moth or some other variety of creepy-crawler because it didn’t try to make its way toward the divine mothership of the flashlight we kept shining in my ear.
Unfortunately, we were experienced at luring moths from ears. A few months ago, we had implemented Operation: Moth-Ear Rescue when a minuscule moth lost its way in the same ear. Ken and Natalie, with a flashlight and tweezers, were able to lure the little moth back to the light of existence and even out the door after several minutes of moth-wing-rattle in my brain that I hoped never to experience again.
This time, we tried all the old tricks but the critter just burrowed in deeper, making me feel like I was losing my mind as rapidly as its fanned its wings. I freaked out. I had myself a little pity part. I got pissed off and cried. Then I took some of the anti-anxiety meds my oncologist had loaded me up with months ago for my eye adventure while Ken and I puzzled over what to do. We tried all manner of ear shaking at many angles of repose as well as squirting in water to see if the bug would swim to his safety and my sanity.
Just as we were about to go to the emergency room, me with one leg in my sweat pants and Ken already in a pair of khakis, he got the idea that we should call the E.R. to see if they had any tips to try at home. Our local hospital referred us to a medical center hotline in the Kansas City area, and within minutes, Ken was asking the woman on the other end of the phone questions like, “Is Kosher wine okay?”
It turns out that an effective trick involves wine or beer. Lucky for us, we always have many years’ supply of that sticky, sweet Manischewitz Passover wine. By the time Ken was using a syringe to aim that wine into my ear, I was singing the Kiddish, the blessing for wine we sing with each of the four glasses during a Passover seder. Yup, Passover is in the spring, and we’re now between the fall High Holidays, but no matter: for good measure, and because one dose of wine only made the bug drunk, we decided to go for four doses, just like during a seder. Sometimes a moment is so ludicrous all a gal can do is lie on her right side, belting out “Baruch Atah Adonai…” at full volume while her husband squirts freezing Kosher wine into her ear. Meanwhile, Ken was reciting, “Why is this night different than other nights?” and pointing out to me that I actually was reclining (what supposedly makes Passover different than ordinary nights).
Did you know you can get a little drunk by having wine squirted deep into your ear repeatedly? Eventually all the wine and singing made the bug give up the ghost. By the time I was in the shower for a long stretch, aiming hot water into my ear to flush it out, I was singing new versions of old Passover songs. “Let My People Go” became “Let My Insect Go.”
By 5 a.m., I was able to put my head back on my pillow, vividly relieved that there was no fluttering in my ear. All day, I’ve been pondering what it means that God or the randomness of the universe put a bug in my ear.
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.
Please consider supporting my Patreon campaign to help me create new writing, workshops, and a podcast series, and receive even more writing, plus cool perks, and an extensive writing guide. More here.
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.
Please support me creating a lot more writing, transformative writing workshops, and a new podcast series on the power of our stories! You can support me on Patreon, get cool perks and weekly inspirations for your creative life for as little as $3/month. More here.
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.
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.
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.
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.