A year ago, I was positively radioactive. On June 14, I had surgery to insert a tiny gold disk of radioactive pellets in my right eye, and on June 19, I had surgery to have it removed. That span of days, I was scared and exhausted by unremitting pain (that would go on beyond the radioactive phase), yet I was also on my front porch, drinking iced tea, watching hummingbirds dive-bomb each other, and occasionally eating a lemon cream croissant from the fabled 1900 Bakery that Kris brought me. I couldn’t pet the cat, get within 10 feet of Ken, or endure any sunlight.
A year later, I’m on the front porch of the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, my feet on a chair, my computer on my lap, and my eyes — one that can see relatively normally and that other that sees an impressionistic, soft-edged, floater-crossing world — are fixed on the sparrows, jetting from fence ledge to tree branch. We regard each other while a white-skinned sycamore tree looks on. I’m drinking iced tea and thinking about eating some leftover beef bourguignon for lunch. A whirly-gig — a little thin leaf swirling unevenly all the way down — catches me. Because of the pandemic, I’m alone here, and it’s okay.
A tale of two Junes is just a sliver of all the Junes I’ve lived and hope to live. A year from now, I envision a widely-distributed, extremely-effective, and vividly-safe vaccine, and life not going back to the the old normal, but opening back up. Maybe I’ll be back here, but when the trolley passes by, as it does every 30 minutes, the driver and riders won’t be masked. We’ll go to restaurants again, peruse book stores, consider air travel with ease, and think nothing of stopping at a gas station to use the restroom. I see us talking about how strange it was, still is actually, to have lost so much and so many while also — I hope — saying what we can see now that we couldn’t see pre-pandemic.
A year ago, I had to wear a towel over my head as well as two pairs of sunglasses under that towel when riding in cars to go for medical follow-up appointments. Light hurt so much that many evenings, after I lay on the couch with an ice pack over my eyes while we watched (me watching by listening) a Northern Exposure episode, we went to the porch in the dark to listen. My ears learned to see 6 varieties of cicadas and even more of katydids. I couldn’t see what I would see.
A year from now, I wonder what we will see and deeply hear in new ways, trusting that with all we lose, there’s some compensation of vision, beauty, wisdom or compassion even if it’s not often enough to erase the pain. There’s also this wind ruffling these leaves while a branch trembles under the weight of a young sparrow, just out of the nest and ready by instinct for what’s next.
What is a year? We don’t know, but we will find out.
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As I watch the Pendleton’s peonies I just bought rush from tight little balls to full-throttle fireworks of blossoms, I keep thinking of three impossible things: the massive tornado that tunneled through our area last May 28th, my eye cancer diagnosis right before the tornado, and the pandemic that ups the ante on anxiety and the longing to live . In short, it’s been a helluva year. In long form, there’s a lot to say about how all three events can grow into greater resilience, courage, community, and imagination in a hurry.
When I went to the Pendleton’s farm last Memorial Day, I was their last customer of the day. I bought some asparagus (which they’re deservedly famous for) and plants for the vegetable garden, but mostly peonies. Poet Mary Oliver describes this explosion of a flower as unabashedly mortal with “their lush trembling,/ their eagerness/ to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are/ nothing, forever?” I was reeling from my diagnosis through a maze of scans and tests toward what would be very painful surgery to insert radiative pellets in my eye, then remove them, and I knew the bold and brave peony was what I needed on my night table.
I spoke with John and Karen Pendleton that afternoon about the times they had to rebuild (such as when a microburst wiped out their farm) and the long hours and slim margins of the farming life. We also covered the care and feeding of the peonies, heavy balls on the ends of long sticks Karen fetched from the refrigerator for me to take home, plop in a vase, and voila! Magic happens. But only because the Pendletons, like so many local farmers, stick it out and put in the time.
The next day, the afternoon air was so weighted in humidity and danger that it was hard to think straight or breathe freely. Then the sirens started in earnest and didn’t stop for over an hour. I ran up and down the stairs to the basement many times, urging Ken to come join me in a protective underground space while he insisted he could stay outside a little longer watching the huge wall of rain approach. The only problem was that this wall held a rain-wrapped tornado (or more accurately, a bevy of tornadoes snaking together and apart), making it impossible to see what funnels of destruction were heading our way. Our son on the phone, tracking Kansas radar from his Wisconsin apartment, assured us whatever was coming was coming straight for us.
The last time we experienced this was shortly after I completed chemo 17 years earlier to poison-cleanse all the breast cancer out of me. I remember, when Ken asked what I wanted to save, just shrugging and suggesting the animals, kids, and photo albums. That tornado lifted back up and didn’t touch us. This time I was angry, yelling at the sky, “Really?” along with a bunch of curse words.
The tornado just missed us, downing and twisting trees a tenth of a mile north. But it grew larger and stronger as it drove northeast, overtaking the Pendleton Farm. While they were safe in their basement, the home and farm they climbed upstairs to was devastated, and they were faced with the decision of whether and how to rebuild, not to mention a massive mess. People came out of the woodwork for them and for our other neighbors who lost roofs, windows, whole houses, and certainly a sense of safety in the world.
Since then, I’ve finished my cancer treatment, and although I’m mostly blind in what I call my magic eye, I’m okay….for now. But that’s how it always is with life and certainly how it is with the pandemic for many of us. But oh, so many losses for so many this year, the kind you can’t rebuild or just use your other eye to mitigate. There’s also the overwhelming economic and economic security losses (how high can you count?), the fear and dread of how to stay safe in this long interim between pandemic and remedy or vaccine, and so much we took for granted no longer part and parcel of routine life.
But there’s also these peonies, this year’s bouquet I bought from the Pendletons now that they’re rebuilt and rebuilding. There’s this world full of tight communities coming together to help and support their members. There’s this human tendency to start over, exhausted and heartbroken, and make something good or good enough out of brokenness.
“Do you love this world?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “Peonies.” Yes, I do, so much, especially now when the tender beauty and intoxicating scent of a flower is surprisingly strong enough to hold me, even with the possibilities of wild weather in this body and across this land and nation. I wonder what next year’s peonies will tell us.
The irises are falling all over themselves with the weight of their beauty. It’s banner year where they’ve gone beyond simply showing off to flinging their gorgeousness at us with IMAX screen intensity. For the last 15 years, I’ve cut and bundled them carefully in a cacophony of vases in a large box. Then I placed the box carefully between the driver’s and passenger’s seat in my car, Kelley Hunt on one side, me on the other, calling out, “Have iris, will travel!” as our motto as we headed to Brave Voice.
This year of cancellations, postponements, mask-making, and stay-at-home directives means we’re not going deep into the Flint Hills to welcome people from across the country to this 6-day retreat of writing, singing, art-making, prairie-wandering, and magic-manifestation. I woke up this morning distinctly sad about this. While I’m counting the weeks until our rescheduled Brave Voice for Sept. 20-25, I’m missing this deep spring immersion into community, imagination, and prairie. At the same time, I realize many of us are missing events as well as people, places, ordering some extra hummus at a restaurant, or casually walking into a friend’s house and plopping down on her couch.
But the irises are blasting headlines across my heart about this particular event not happening because the iris is surely the Brave Voice floral mascot (we also have the cougar and pineapple, but those are other stories). Every year, we place overflowing bouquet of iris in the center of our circle where we gather to write about a time we experienced a miracle or sing in a 3-part-round with what could easily be 7-part-harmony “Breathe in…..Breathe out…”. We bring armloads of irises with us to place in the cabins and on tables, most from my yard, which increased in its iris population as I kept planting more each fall so for Brave Voice each spring. The camp often has its own herds of iris blooming, and everywhere, there’s the scent and promise of this resilient flower.
Irises look so delicate with their almost transparent-thin petals and complex bends and curves, but they’re powerfully strong. Put a bunch of iris in a vase, and with enough water and care, they can easily last a week or more. Plant an iris bulb, and it will reproduce itself underground, burrowing into the dirt to gather all the nutrients it needs to send up sturdy shoots while multiplying over time. Even when the weight of their tops makes them fall over, they keep opening their buds. They can survive horrid winters and mind-melting summers. They can find a way around stones or, as in our front yard, wayward kayaks blocking their usual trajectory. Even in a time of drought or harsh conditions, they still come calling, blossom and all. In short (although they’re tall), they’re brave.
I also think of irises as vibrantly musical. Synesthesia is when one sense takes on the qualities of another, and irises to me are synesthesic creatures. Their scents and shape sing to me, and not in a whisper kind of way, but full-throated, putting it all out there. If we could translate them into sound, I think they would belt out tunes like the love child of Laura Nyro and Josh Groban. Their brave voice is velvety and resonant, occasionally lilting through high notes while also encompassing us in a raw warmth that says home is so much more mysterious and alive than you can imagine.
So here we humans are, out in the wind and the rain of a pandemic, trying to stay upright and rooted enough. But we’re as beautiful in our vulnerability and propensity for music and magic as the iris. Let us keep remember, even celebrate, our brave voices at this time. Let nothing impede the courage that comes from digging down deep, soaring high, and opening our hearts completely.
A year ago today, pacing an empty parking lot, I cried so hard on the phone with my friend Kelley that it was hard to get the words out: “I have cancer. In my eye. I’m so scared.” Ken was racing back from Topeka to meet me after my two hours of scans at the ophthalmologist’s office. My right’s eye blurry eyesight wasn’t a minor glitch in this body’s solar system, but a large asteroid crashing through whatever semblance I had of calm, whatever thoughts I had of being safe.
Thus began my personal pandemic with its the customary WTF? phone calls, bouts of fear storms, and a lot of clearing of the calendar. The next day was far worse when my new ocular oncologist said it could be a melanoma but it was more likely a brain tumor. “Let’s hope for the melanoma then,” I said. She shook her head, “They’re both bad!” The interim between that moment — a few hours of more scans in between pacing the waiting room with Ken and my brother Ravi — and the oncologist confirming it was a treatable melanoma was terrifying. But when we got home that day, the sky took on a new sheen: a rainbow to the east, and it was enough.
I thought my life would be briefly interrupted and not changed all that much, but just like my breast cancer road trip 17 years earlier, it took many months and knocked over many plans, notions, and habits. I would have many more scans and tests, a radiation implant in my eye that would require two major surgeries, and a whole lot of time enveloped in hurt and anxiety. That summer, I hardly left the house except to visit a doctor or my therapist, donning two pairs of sunglasses and often a towel over my head because light hurt (obviously, I wasn’t driving). Eventually, I healed, and although my right eye is far past legally blind and I still can’t open it completely, I’m okay. The changes put in motion are still unfolding, and that’s okay too.
While the word “pandemic” refers to a global epidemic, for me and for any of us who go through such mortality-laced journeys, it sure felt like my whole world was in crisis. To ensure healing and safety, I was in home lock-down much of the time. The economy of Caryn World also tripped into the ground and stayed there for a while with lost income and, even with decent health insurance, thousands of dollars of medical bills. But lucky for me — and lucky for all of us right now — I could choose to surrender to what I needed to do based on the best science and medicine available.
Yes, a global pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes, but most if not all of us have lived through the world as we know it dissolving under our feet in a flash. Having the rug pulled out due to serious illness, death, heartbreak, and all manner of other very human challenges is part and parcel of being alive. We think we’re living one story, and poof! Suddenly, it’s a good thing to have erasable gel pens for your calendar, some savings, and the ability to make good things out of our friend, the potato.
This comes home to me lately on Tuesday nights when, through Turning Point, I facilitate writing workshops for people living with serious illness. I started doing these workshops 18 years ago, fresh out of cancer #1, although now we’re meeting through Zoom instead of in-person. A little like a warped futuristic vision of the Brady Bunch, 18-21 of us write and listen our way to greater meaning, strength, and mutual understanding. Some are finding new ways to bake chocolate tortes, some are summoning the strength to get out of bed while irrevocably heartbroken by the loss of a spouse, and some are dealing with chronic pain or what bad news might be just around the next blood test or MRI.
We’re well-accustomed to the land of the personal pandemic, and a good many were unfazed by stay-at-home orders, which we’ve had to enact before for a few months or as a way of life after losing some of our immune system’s robustness or our body’s mobility. We know what it is to eat resilience for breakfast, aiming ourselves toward outlooks and activities that tilt open the door to some calm, some comfort, some joy. “Yeah, I don’t go to the store anyway,” a woman with a neurological disease told us. “I’ve hardly left my house for years,” someone else chimed in. Over years of living with illness and/or being a caregiver for a patient, many have learned how to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” to quote Boyd K. Packer. No wonder we find great intrigue in the antics of squirrels or birds, growing flowers, baking bread, or other everyday resilience practices, readily available as we cross over the threshold of one room to another.
But it’s not just what people do in a personal pandemic: it’s very much how they frame the narrative, including the low dips, of their experience. Someone I’ll call Lulu has minimal energy because of her aggressive cancer, so she’s determined to make the best use of her time and energy left, using it to talk lovingly with her family and make special surprise boxes for her husband and daughter to find after she’s gone. “Bill” goes to his porch to breathe through the pain, focusing his attention on cardinals fighting it up in aerial dances. Lou (who has given me permission to use her name) wrote a book about her Vietnam nursing experience, where she was exposed to the Agent Orange that planted Parkinson’s in her; now she regularly speaks to veteran groups and community gatherings in between gardening and grandmothering, even if she’s a little off-balance some days.
This day, a year after my last personal pandemic showed up, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, seven weeks in lockdown, but I take note of how many doors are still open, like one leading outside, where I plant some lilies or the door to my car which I can drive well enough with one eye to meet friends for socially-distant walks. As time passes, I even cross the threshold of not seeing my eye adventure as a loss because I keep learning how in any pandemic — personal or global — we have the ability to grow magic eyes that let us see our small worlds or the world-at-large in new ways.
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Yes, I hear you knocking on my door at all hours of the day and especially night, calling me out of my sleep because you’re not getting enough of your own. You want to know what will be, how it will happen, and especially when. Fair enough questions given that you’re human, and humans can’t help but to desperately want some ground under their dainty or lumbering feet, a sense of control so they can puzzle together some steadying vision of what they believe will happen. You’re planners, all of you to some extent, and you like to think your plans matter.
So here’s the deal: I can’t tell you how you leap from here to there or how high you’ll have to jump to make that leap because this isn’t a situation of you being able to soar high enough on your own volition to aim yourself toward a pre-designated target. Besides, it usually doesn’t work out well for the future to be too chatty about itself with the present. But what I can tell you is this:
Be where you need to be. For most of you, that means home or whatever approximates home for now. Some of you go out to work in hospitals, grocery stores or gas stations, and that’s, as they say, essential work, but if you have an option to work, worship, meet and otherwise gather from home, believe me (and I should know) that you’ll be glad you took that option in the long run.
Many of you — I’m eyeing you, America — really don’t like being told what to do and not do, where to go and not go. Please, for the sake of my time, get over yourself. No one is ripping away your liberty or free will, just tilting you toward using it to discover greater freedom and possibility at home. You are completely free to clean out that drawer in the kitchen that holds everything from extra screws to old sunglasses. You can discipline yourself to create a new wall hanging out of scraps of fabric or a new garden bed. There’s plenty you have dominion over.
At the same time, this is a pandemic, not an all-expenses-paid creative retreat. If can’t do more today than make some microwave popcorn and stare out your window at a pair of cardinals, that’s okay. You’re not going to regret the days that don’t register on your old scales of productivity. You will regret driving yourself crazy to win the pandemic self-improvement sweepstakes, so don’t even enter. Create what comes to you. Sleep enough now (believe me, there will be a lot of new work ahead when you get to my time). Take good care of your body and soul, and if you live with others, your housemates or pets too.
Accept that you have many shifting behavioral and emotional strategies and phases to cycle through, and you don’t all do this the same way at the same time. Try not to judge your brother-in-law for practicing for a marathon while the only marathon in your life involves Netflix. If someone judges you, tell them to back the #$% off, but say it nicer — this isn’t a time to escalate tensions. One other thing: make your bed. That’s something you can do to put some semblance of order into your day from the get-go.
Some of you are suffering tremendously. Maybe you’re sick with something that’s different or the same as Corvid-19. Maybe you’re terrified of dying or of losing someone. Maybe you’ve already lost a beloved, or you’re climbing out of a close brush with death. Many of you are losing income, and the unemployment checks haven’t started trickling in. Or you might be on the cusp of losing a job, health insurance, and other necessary supports. Some of you (maybe all at moments) are swallowed up in dread, despair, and anxiety for stretches. All I can tell you is that this is horrendous, I’m so sorry, and I wish I could do something for you back in what’s my past. But I can also tell you this: hang on, Sloopy, hang on. That’s because….
This future — and I know I’m biased here — is very promising. Many of you are already opening your hearts wider than you have in some time, helping others with donations, prayers, plans and tools. You have incredible potential to change yourself, and with you the world, for the better by just learning to stay. Sit tight without trying to impose your will or ideas of what your life is supposed to be on yourself and others. The more you do this solo, the more you learn how to do this together, household by household, community by community.
Also, listen to the real science (the more of us who do this, the better for the future). It will enhance your ability to be guided by reality in other aspects of your life too. At the same time, protect yourself from whatever news overwhelms you or sensationalizes reality. Take news fasts when needed or ask someone close to you to update you on anything vital you need to know about the real science and reality of where you are.
This is the spring and beyond of being much more than doing. Listen to the birds. Pet the cat. Take notice of that shining pale blue that holds all the trees in such grace. Marvel at the lilac, and this year, you have the time to smell them and even get down on the ground to smell lily-of-the-valley. Listen to your favorite singer streaming an old song about when you first fell in love. Cry at the end of “Casablanca” and laugh at “Ferris Bueller.” Call your grieving friend. Zoom with your lonely mom. Text your unemployed niece back and forth about cool movies she likes. But also get in touch with yourself: who you are (whatever that means) without decking yourself out in the story you don each day about who you’re supposed to be.
One other thing to remember: you can’t see the whole story until you get to the end of it. Yes, this pandemic absolutely has an ending, and most likely, you’re okay there and then, even if a little older, sadder, and wiser. When you get well past the arc of this story, you’ll see what the arc was, not just for our planet but for your own precious life. Especially, you’ll know heart-to-heart more about the preciousness of this gift, this life
Hey, kiddo, please also remember that I believe (and depend) on you.
With love always, the future
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