Walking With Courage, Vulnerability, and Tenderness: Everyday Magic, Day 1,001

Amazingly enough, we are arrived at the last day of March, a month that has lasted at least 1,283 days in fear, panic, and dread years. But here we are, and as April — what T.S. once called the cruelest month — approaches, we know we’re in for a far longer, harder, and more unimaginable month with the virus likely peaking over the coming weeks.

Walking — our new and only in-person social life of late — with our son Forest through East Lawrence the other day, I asked him what the word was for the world looking one way while it’s also a drastically different world at the same time. We were ambling past heartbreakingly beautiful manifestations of spring — magnolia trees loaded with pink boats of blossom, tender green just-leafing trees, and a gala of daffodils, hyacinths, and even some early scout redbuds showing off like the main attractions they are. Forest thought for a moment, then said the word I was looking for was dissonance, that anxious tension from two disharmonious elements.

The numbers of people with Covid-19 are rising exponentially, more and more people are dying, medical supplies are running out, and the map in the New York Times I check (with bated breath) every few days looks like the country has a bad case of chicken pox and rampant poison ivy all at once. At the same time, the birds are singing in overlapping and ever-shifting harmonies even if some of their song is about holding onto their territory and driving out invaders. The peach tree in our backyard blossoms in its usual aching beauty. Spring seems far more beautiful and far-reaching in its volume, and even the soft glow of the air, maybe because I’m paying more attention or, more than ever, this is the renewal I need each morning when I wake up, to paraphrase Rumi, scared and empty.

We’re in a time when there’s likely not enough anti-anxiety meds or slow meditative breaths to lift any aware person completely out of feeling some of the vast uncertainty, fear, and suffering happening throughout the world. There’s obviously only vague maps and best-guessed timelines ahead, although we humans cling to patterns and answers. Yet when I pass people on walks in the wetlands or through various neighborhoods, all us carefully keeping at least six feet apart, there’s a tenderness, even among strangers. “Hey, how are you doing?” people will call out, or they’ll just smile and send wishes to stay healthy.

“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability,” Brene Brown tells us. We are growing our courage to get out of bed, unsure what bad news will land today and what beloveds of ours (including ourselves) might be threatened, hurt, or just very afraid. We find our feet and begin walking through our days, our hearts open and trembling like the vulnerable and courageous creatures we are.

So it’s step by step — the living room to the kitchen, the front door to the backyard, the trail a few feet or miles away, and of course, wandering through what fear, foreboding, or other difficult emotions grip us while we make a meatloaf, pet the dog, call our mother or child or friend, to try to fall asleep. It’s movie by movie, dishwashing by dishwashing, laundry by laundry. But wherever we are in our internal landscape, we can always take the next baby step with courage, vulnerability, and tenderness.

For the month of April, I’m so happy to share with you A Prompt A Day, a daily writing prompt (poems, film clips, songs, and more), plus an optional penpal matching service. It’s offered on a donation basis — for free or up to $30. More here.

Listening to History, Looking Out for the Herd: Everyday Magic, Day 1000

Denise & Judy Back When We Could Go to Pastry Shops

It only took a few seconds of looking at the NYTimes map of the pandemic Saturday night for me to start hyper-ventilating and crying. At that moment, I didn’t yet realize I needed perspective, big-picture, deep-time, and wide-angle views to not just calm myself at the moment, but forge a more informed path forward. After taking a Lorazepam, drinking some water, vowing to self-isolate from regular bouts of Coronavirus news, and breathing slowly, I called my friends Judy and Denise. Both poets with miles of life experience winding through great wisdom, they gave me the gift of such perspective.

“I think of us as part of the herd, and now we have to do what keeps the herd healthy,” Judy said. Although we’re socially distancing, we’re actually coming together to support our collective health and life, giving each other a wide berth to ensure our safety as we roam the sometimes narrow trails of our homes and yards. I think of a Washington Post article I saw last week about staying home and apart not primarily to protect ourselves (although of course that’s essential) but to protect others who might be far more vulnerable that we are to Corvid-19.

“Think of what our parents and grandparents went through with World War II and the 1918 flu pandemic, which started in Kansas” Denise reminded me. We talked about the very long arm of what we know of human history — all the wars, pandemics, and natural disasters that patchwork a large story of perseverance. “Humans are wired and evolved for resilience,” Denise added.

Since then, I’ve been pondering the histories of my ancestors — the pogroms and the Holocaust that killed many but not all, the wars that turned daily existence into insecurities of scarcity, danger, and loss — as well as the generational stories of others I know. What was it like for one of my German friends who was born in early 1945, just in time to be piled in a wagon with many household items, because her family’s home was now destroyed? How was it for my grandparents to live through WWII, even though they were safe in Brooklyn, not knowing if Hitler would take over the world or if their relatives back in Poland, Russia, and Romania would survive (they largely wouldn’t)? During the 1918 pandemic — one the most deadly pandemic in human history — was it so much like living in a war zone that many were enveloped in fight/flight mode for months?

Denise and Judy reminded me that most generations have to deal with something overwhelmingly threatening; this is ours. Yes, it has its distinctions just like any disaster, but there’s a lot in common with past threats. We don’t know when it will end, who it will sicken or kill, what our economy will look like, how the herd will change, and then there are dozens of ifs that can wake up a person at 5 a.m. We don’t have control over ending this quickly, although we can do our part to hasten that ending. We don’t know a thousand and one things about the time ahead or the time we’re in right now.

I don’t mean to minimize suffering, death, mourning, and terror around the world. At the same time, despite this age of collective anxiety and fear (surely bred into our bones from past generational traumas, and reinforced by viral wolves at real doors), we go on like so many other species still vital. Just like the herd of shy deer edging the woods where I live, the squirrel families racing across the roof, the crows landing in the field to find something tasty or shiny.

We have history on our side and the herd to tend, so tend it we will, extending care and affection (without touching), attention and intention toward those we love and those we don’t even know, guided by what’s imprinted in our DNA about the herd and history. I leave you with this call to courage and love from Valerie Kaur of The Revolutionary Love Project: “This pandemic will test who we are, as a people. Will we succumb to fear and self interest? Or will be double down on love? Will we let social distancing isolate us? Or will we find new ways to reach out, deepen our connections, step up community care, and tend to the most vulnerable in our communities? I believe this is is a time to love without limit.”

Loving and Leaving Goddard: Everyday Magic, Day 981

My first group of students in 1996

Arm-in-arm, Vicky, Eduardo, Ralph, and I walked down the snowy country road, belting out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and doing wheelies backwards and forward in the heavy-falling snow as we laughed. It was well past midnight, probably around 1997, and I was in love with my colleagues, students, and teaching at Goddard College, where students designed their own curriculum based on what they felt compelled to learn for their communities and souls. I was sure that I would teach here until I was well past retirement age.

A few days ago, I signed, scanned and sent in my final paperwork to be formally “separated” from the college, and although I had been planning this leap from what I loved for many months, I was surprised by the panorama of emotions that engulfed me in sadness, strangeness, and something beyond naming.

Ruth, Katt and behold! A cow!

Last January, insomnia took me up the mountain of making this decision until I realized it was time to come down on the side of leaving. The urge for going began over a year ago when an economic crisis at the college, coupled with my exhaustion from teaching for 64 consecutive semesters, led me to go on leave. Then the dreams, as some of my readers know, began: dreams of following retired faculty into the woods, dreams of walking away from the college in the middle of the night, dreams of saying goodbye to staff and faculty while wearing raccoon make-up. I would wake up, argue with my dreams that I loved Goddard too much to leave, then the next night, another dream kicked my butt.

A handsome group of graduates at graduation

The dreams didn’t come out of nowhere (as dreams rarely do): my body had been singing, signing, and whispering its leaving song for a while. I rarely went to a 10-day residency, bracketed by 12-hour travel days (and that was only if everything went according to plan) without coming home sick, then struggling for a month or two to reach equilibrium. I grappled with living mostly in Kansas but, close to four weeks each year and longer in my dreamscape, in Vermont also.

I also heard something else calling my name: growing Transformative Language Arts, the MA concentration I started and coordinated at the college since 2000. I believe in paying attention to signs and wonders that nudge us toward our real work, and although I had been able to balance teaching half-time plus doing administrative tasks at the college with facilitating writing workshops, my own writing, and coaching and consulting work, that balance was changing. I felt compelled to develop new ways to help people write and witness the guiding stories that showed them their real work, truths, and strengths.

With Gayle, the first Transformative Language Arts graduate

So I made the leap. The timing was good as the college needed to reduce faculty in alignment with student enrollment, an unfortunate problem facing multitudes of small colleges lately. As I told people and amplified my wishes and ideas for evolving work, I found some new inroads and a whole lot of support. I also tripped into new ways of seeing my work and life by virtue of — surprise! — being diagnosed with eye cancer in late April, then going through treatment, and now recovery. Nothing like a whole lot of illness and healing to land a person in a new place in life!

As I move forward, regaining blurry but increasingly larger windows of vision in my right eye and in my sense of what’s next for me, I look forward to what I’ll see and be called toward. At the same time, I wanted to pause here to honor all that I love about Goddard: sitting with a student at twilight in my office as we puzzle out her study plans until she bursts out laughing and crying at once in relief because she now knew what she wants to do in her life as well as semester. Or singing “Salaam” though the thin walls of our offices with my colleague, the Rebbe Lori, before we scooted out to swim in the freezing-cold waters of the quarry between meetings and dinner.

The faculty at dinner with some friends

I loved rehearsing with the faculty for our cabaret act, the Goddard College Dryland Sychronized Swimming Team, while fellow faculty member Katt kept calling out, “Now remember. We don’t want to over-rehearse” although we only had one 10-minute rehearsal.

I loved walking the wooded  road from the dorm village to the library alone or with students, joking about how the wind in the trees was transmitting magic. Or those solo walks across the now-gone (due to a storm) the forest’s Wabi Sabi bridge after a long day of faculty meetings.

Winter happens

I loved the Wednesday morning field trips each faculty member could take with their students, especially the one where Ruth, our program’s director, joined  my six students and me in the Goddard van for a wander day in which we simply aimed ourselves whatever direction we felt compelled to go. Of course, we ended up at a remote Buddhist center where we fell under the enchantment of the bells.

I loved the quiet moments in the residency cabarets when someone got up to sing, tell a story, dance, or play the piano publicly for the first time, took a breath with all of us, then began.

I loved the summer meteor showers even when, lying on a bedspread next to a dorm with a bunch of faculty, we could barely see the sky through the trees. I loved the winter nights when the snow sparkled in kaleidoscopic ways I’ve never seen anywhere else, and I adored the ways the firs and pines dropped snow from their branches in seemingly slow motion.

Just another faculty meeting

In the here and now of this Wednesday evening when my former colleagues are at the college for a residency, I watch my shadow self sitting in a dorm room, as I would be doing if I were still a faculty member, a stack of student papers to read and a day of meeting ideas still swirling in my head. I tell her it’s time to cross that Wabi Sabi bridge of love and memory to the here and now of where I live. The rich Kansas night air — packed with the music of katydids, cicadas, crickets, and humidity — stirs me home. I am grateful for all of where I’ve been and for wherever I’m landing.

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When Life Reboots You: Everyday Magic, Day 980

It occurred to me recently that I’m in the middle of a big life reboot. Thanks to the eye cancer, treatment, and recovery time, I’m in a different season of my life than summer would have led me to believe. But that’s what life reboots do: they strip us down to the essentials of staying alive, then re-orient us to see and even be in the world a whole new way.

I realize that all of us get rebooted in our lives, and usually more than once, catalyzed by a medical diagnosis, a big loss and plunge into grief, or an old dream dying or dead. But everything can and does change with seemingly happy things too: falling in love big-time, finding the job of our dreams, or moving to our seemingly forever home. What we thought was the life plan, the itinerary of our own invention, or the trajectory we were supposed to live turns out to be a dry husk of a once high-flying insect. Just like when we reboot our computers, we have to shut down the old ways, wait for a new start, and enter some kind of password or otherwise invoke magic words or deeds to begin again. Unlike the computer, when the screen comes online again, it doesn’t often have all the same icons staring at us.

For me, the reboot started April 28 when the ophthalmologist told me I definitely had a tumor in my eye. It continues and will likely still keep unfolding over the coming months as the radiation treatment plays out its tumor-dissolving magic. Late spring and summer have become something else indeed.

Instead of going swimming two or three times each week, driving to meet friends for lunch or wander through Kohls to see what cool shirts are on sale, and going here and for gigs and meetings, I’m home, watching what is usually high summer move through me like the wind through the trees, also rooted here. The gains are more abundant than the pain (just about all gone), fear, and anxiety. Each night, we make time to sit on the porch, and in the dark, listen. We can usually make out at least four different kinds of katydids interrupted by the the tender and mournful call of the barred owl. Daytime, like right now, I’m also on the porch, hearing swirls of wind topple through the osage orange trees while a bird I cannot see pierces the waves of cicada humming (or roars). The soundscape continues to open up.

My work in the world — and I don’t just mean how I make a living — opens up too. For the last year, I’ve been considering ways to make a living without leaving the house as often, and boy, is that coming true with a vengeance. Some of my coaching client are coming here now, and over watermelon on the porch, we talk through new essays, website copy, and what a poem truly wants to be. The urgency that has driven the rambling hippie school bus of my livelihood for years is no longer onboard, and that bus is parked somewhere in the back 40. Instead, I’m letting come to me more than ever what my best ways are and could be to grow Transformative Language Arts — the ways we can use writing, storytelling, theater and more to enhance our lives and world (yup, and the Patreon campaign is part of this).

But there’s another closer-to-the-skin layer of my work: to listen more, be stiller, and trust more deeply that what’s mine to do will make itself evident (while resisting what’s not mine).  Every chance we’re given to see our storyline — what we thought we were living, who we thought we were — fall away is a gift.

Back at the Cancer Rodeo: Everyday Magic, Day 972

Self-Portrait With Rainbow & New Cancer Diagnosis

When I had breast cancer 17 years ago, I learned some things about resilience, the ability to bounce back. There’s nothing like being thrown off a bucking bronco to discover that yes, you can hit the ground, hard, and yes, you can hobble back to your feet and strength. There’s also nothing like community and all the love that made me upright again, then fed me homemade soup at regular intervals.

In 2002, I discovered I had breast cancer, lymph node involvement, and also the BRCA 1 genetic mutation — which increases the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and other cancers (even melanomas, like what I now have). There were three big surgeries, akin to holding onto a mechanical bull in the middle of a tornado,  surrendering to the anesthesia, and waking up to nausea and clear skies. There were also months of chemo, mounting one unbroken pony  after another with the certainty that I would be thrown off and I would throw up, and my white cells and mojo would plummet. I’d be overtaken by a numbing white sleeve of sleep at any moment interspersed with steroid-induced  closet re-organization at 3 a.m.  Ken, my family, friends, and big community love got me through, filled our refrigerator with blintzes and chocolate pudding for the six months of chemo, drove kids to and from piano lessons and hospital visits, brought me a TV and VCR (we had neither beforehand) so I could zone out on Steve Martin movies, and talked me through fear storms.

In the years since, I’ve understood that the cancer rodeo grabs hold of many of us as patients and just about all of us as people who love people with cancer. Having facilitated writing workshops for people with cancer and other serious illnesses at Turning Point in Kansas City for the last 17 years, I’ve also seen miraculous displays of grace: people who find the strength to open their hearts to life and make new meaning. From all of this, I’ve learned a few rodeo tricks and tips from the pros:

  • Generally, the hardest part is the excruciating limbo between “you have what sure seems like cancer” to a precise diagnosis and treatment plan.
  • New and mind-blowingly innovative medical treatments are coming to fruition all the time.
  • Energy healing and other forms of healing (whatever works for you) — acupuncture, massage, yoga, nutrition, walking with friends, laughing our asses off together — at best can spark startling revelations, and at worse, can dissolve incapacitating fear.
  • Denial is not a dirty word: it’s a necessary coping mechanism along with dimming the harsh lights of what’s likely ahead for us. We can’t live fully while carrying a backpack full of big rocks all the time.
  • Statistics are somewhat meaningless in the intimate space of being alive as a singular person connected to other people in the here and now. I’ve seen people with stage 4 cancers kvetching and sharing jokes 15 years out, and I’ve seen the opposite, too.
  • Cancer doesn’t change who we are; nor does treatment. I feared I wouldn’t still be myself on heavy doses of chemo, and yet I was totally still me, maybe even more so. Big dances with mortality reveal to us more of who we innately are, and that is a priceless gift of perspective.
  • There’s incredible good company at the cancer rodeo: people with the best senses of humor and get-up-and-go gumption because of close encounters with the life force. These are the best people you’ll ever meet or even be.
  • No one is immune to mortality.

Which leads me to now: some fuzzy vision in my right eye and a lot of blinking since March led me to an excellent ophthalmologist, Dr. Brown,  who, after two hours of shining lights into my eyes while having me look right or left and taking various images, had to tell me there was definitely cancer there. My stomach plummeted, and I felt the floor fall away. The rest of the day included talking with my wonderful integrative physician, Dr. Sandal, and my fantastic oncologist, Dr. Soule, in between a lot of phone calls, numbness, loss of appetite (a rare thing for me), occasional freak-outs at what wild animals I would have to ride and fear over if I would get to the other side intact. I also petted my cat a lot.

Yesterday, Ken, my soul brother Ravi, and I went on an inner space mission to Dr. Desai, a superb ocular oncologist at St. Luke’s Hospital. Did you know they can do an ultrasound of your eyeball? I know that along with how contrast dye of the eye produces clear images and that if you subtract the shortest man in the world from the tallest, you get Shaq O’Neal (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was booming in the waiting room). The extreme possibilities were extremely dire, and while I won’t know for completely sure if the rest of my body is clear until after the PET scan and brain MRI, when Dr. Desai said it was a treatable melanoma, I burst out crying in relief.

What’s next is a tiny gold button full of radioactive pellets planted behind my eye before being removed five days later. Then, aside from potential and probable long-term side-effects and vigilant monitoring for the spread of micro-melanomas, I’m done with this rodeo, and maybe with the cancer rodeo circuit for good…..or not, which is a big reason all this can be so scary.

The view from here

Now it’s time to ready myself for the rodeo and other metaphoric renderings of what’s ahead, knowing I will find a way through thanks to dedicated medical professionals, gifted healers, and especially my best-beloveds, particularly Ken, who gets to go with me yet again through a mess of tests and challenges. While I don’t own a pair of red cowgirl boots, I can barely ride a horse, and I can’t yodel to save my life, I can be brave enough to let all these people and procedures save my life. Then, probably sometime this summer, l’ll be on the other side with a more resilient spirit,  more grateful heart, and maybe a cowboy hat too.

Thank you for reading this and being with me at the start of all this.

 

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