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.”

Dear Me: Stop Freaking Out: Everyday Magic, Day 999

Dear Me (and Dear Me!),

I know you’re crazy-scared about the coronavirus. How could anyone paying attention not be when the closings and cancellations fall like dominos. Just in the last day, many universities in your state cancelled in-person classes, events on your calendar vanished in a wisp of precaution, and your synagogue called off services. In an age when even a minyan (Jewish term for the minimum number of Jews to be present for formal worship) is a risk, it’s hard to turn away from the ticker tape parade across the frontal lobe that keeps blaring, “The world is ending!”

After the agony too, the laundry

Actually, it’s just the world we know in the ways we expect it to be based on how it’s been rollicking along for a while. Your son was videoconferencing with his friend in China last night, who lives one province over from the virus epicenter, and they were laughing and catching up. A Facebook friend in Italy posts about the beyond-imagined new normal and how they’re hanging out at home, watching movies, making food, taking short walks, and worrying about loved ones with the virus.

Moreover, this moment — while certainly unique in most or all of our lifetimes — is another one of many ongoing overwhelming threats to human life and activity along with climate change, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and so much more. While we’re in an expansive rift, let us also mention the reality that we are all exceedingly mortal and can control only a fraction of what happens to us.

Telescoping in to what might be in your purview, it’s not a good time to think about your retirement investments, and yes, some of your gigs are called off, but please don’t go down this rabbit hole because you, along with a lot of people you know, are likely going to be fine and will have the resources you need. You have good health insurance, you live in a lovely home in the country with fields and woods to traverse, and you can afford to stock the pantry. You’re also abundantly outfitted with books, art supplies, sewing projects, movies, and animals. Oh, and you have the phone and internet, and already, you’ve been visiting deeply with lots of friends more even if the conversation is often punctuated with “I’m scared too.”

So many people, close around you and scattered around the world, do not have such a safety net. You can pray, send good wishes, and contribute money here and there, but consider what else you can do. Your son’s idea to contact neighbors and make connections so that, as needed, we can run errands for each other is a good one. It’s also important to contemplate little, quiet fundraising efforts for people who will lose most of their income. What else can you do? As for everything and especially this thing, more will be revealed in time.

So why, little trembling darling, are you still so anxious? Of course, telling yourself you need to be less freaked out right now so that your emotions don’t diminish your immune system isn’t going to get you anywhere either. Panicky urgency should not be given the keys to drive the bus right now. Instead, I want you to consider this:

  • Right now, no one you know is sick and suffering with this virus, and while that’s likely to change, it would do you good to dwell in the present. Speaking of which….
  • Right now, the pale blue-to-white sky is as soft as the warming air. The peas and carrots you planted in the garden on Sunday are germinating in that rich dirt after rain saturated everything. The fields are just on the verge of going from washed out tans and browns to scribbled-in exuberant green.
  • Right now, you have a cat asleep near your feet and a dog asleep (although looking at your quizzically) by your side. They fear nothing.
  • Right now, there are deer in the woods walking gingerly up the hill. There are happy rabbits regrouping with their buddies for the spring. Hibernating turtles stir underground. Early spring birds sing across the airwaves. Here we are in an unfurling world beyond the reach of headlines and soundbites.
  • What we worry about happening usually bears no resemblance to what happens. If and when you or loved ones get sick, as a zen master pal of yours said today, you’ll be okay even if you can’t imagine what okay is or how it might play out. Or you’ll not be okay, and that’s okay too.
  • Most of all, know that while you can’t do anything to stop a viral pandemic, you can do something about your airspace in the pandemic of fear. When you get scared, get off your bum, walk outside, and take a long, deep breath. Go hang some laundry and feel the wind lifting and dropping all around us. The world is infinitely larger than the scaredy cat meowing inside you. Take another breath. Then another.

Love, me

Oh, For the Relief of Pain!: Everyday Magic, Day 977

When the anesthesiologist and nurse started me on Fentanyl last Wednesday, I told them I loved them both, and I meant it. By the end of the five days of hosting the gold heart of radioactive seeds in my right, the pain around in my eye and temple was so intense I was up most of the night before surgery. But once I got to the surgery prep room, told the good people around me of my nausea and pain, all manner of relief ensued: the nurse gave me a small cotton ball with peppermint oil for my nausea, then inserted some additional meds into my IV. The anesthesiologist gave me a Tylenol, then okayed the heavier narcotic which proved to miraculously fast-acting. In the body space where big pain resided, peace and joy rose over the land of my life within minutes.

All of this has me thinking a lot about the lengths I could go to to outrun pain, which are considerable. I can’t imagine slapping a kitten or stealing a car, but my mind along with the rest of me would toddle up desert mountains without water for pain relief. When I consider the times in my life when physical pain has ruled the roost — those three natural childbirths, a horrendous bout with an upper G.I. bleed once, and a history of dancing with migraines since I was a teenager — I know that when I’m in the grip of something painfully gripping, I would easily beg at the altar of pharmaceuticals for anything to take that pain away, and if that’s not possible, put me to sleep until it’s over. I have no doubt that had I given birth in a conventional hospital rather than a marvelous free-standing birthing center, I would have happily called out, “yes, please!” if an epidural was offered, forgetting my commitment for as healthy a birth as possible for the baby.

Then I consider the kind of chronic pain so many people I know live with — constant back agony, heart-numbing depression, myriad sharp pain throughout the body without rhyme or reason, and so many other physical and mental states equivalent to the ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size) in The Princess Bride. There’s also the pain of the social body born of prejudices and biases: constant attacks on the self for not being white or straight or thin or whatever else enough. Lately, there’s the immense and needless pain of what is being done to thousands of migrant children, locked in cages without food or bedding, alone or crowded without enough ventilation or tenderness to survive on without incurring damage. We may not be experiencing such pain directly, but that’s the thing about pain: knowing it in enough intimacy often helps us tilt open the door of our own heart so that we can better see and respond to the pain of others.

My 12 days of surgery and migraine tussles suck of course, but perspective tells me it’s just a drop in the fuck-it bucket of what so many others are going through right now, whether it’s a six-year-old Guatemalan boy trying to keep a toddler fed on a concrete floor in Texas, a neighbor down the street carrying the shattered pieces of her grieving heart to the empty bed tonight, or someone who cuts me off in traffic because he was up most of the night with shoulder pain.

“Oh, for the relief of pain!” is a human chorus, coming back around at every turn if we look widely and listen deeply enough. What those of us harboring pain would do to relieve it is just as vast and complicated, and although this is surely what I always warned my students against — vague generalizations — I’m vaguely generalizing that a lot of pain in this world is fed by what we do or try to do to relieve the root of suffering. The opiate crisis, a rash of suicides, our collective issues with over-consumption that severely and negatively impact our climate and even our own survival — they all create ripples of pain, often without resolving the original pain or with replacing it with something even more vexing.

But that’s the thing: not all pain can be relieved. Some of the Turning Point writers I work with live with acute and constant pain from years of harsh chemotherapy or progressive neurological diseases. Some of my friends, surviving without beloved partners or parents or siblings, carry that vivid emptiness with them daily. Some of the people who brush past me in the food co-op or bank are hurting in an alphabet of pain most people can’t imagine.

All we can do is say it: I’m hurting. All we can do is ask: please help, or please just sit here with me cursing this embodied moment of sharp edges. All we can tell ourselves is, “Yup, it’s bad now, but I have hope it will be better tomorrow,” even if we’re repeating this refrain tomorrow. And all we can say is “I love you” to the world, even if temporarily disguised as a smiling nurse and anesthesiologist on the small island on what hurts surrounded by the bigger beauty of life.

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“God’s Got You, Baby”: Everyday Magic, Day 976

The lovely view from the porch where I’m spending most of my waking time.

That’s what Cynthia said as she led me back to the surgery prep room when I told her I was scared. “And don’t you worry because God made women stronger so we can get through anything.” Cynthia works for St. Luke’s hospital in Kansas City, and although I don’t know her official capacity, she wears a bright blue and white button that says “success coach.” Her words were cool water to me in the desert, pretty literally because I was parched from the no-water-before-surgery rule, and I was crazy scared.

Over the next few hours when I was prepped on Friday, she popped in the room every so often, teasing me about going to the restroom so often, an effective avoidant strategy for me and inconvenience for the medical personnel when I’m hooked up to IVs and monitors. But her words about how God’s got me helped me breathe just a bit more deeply.

Now I know all of us don’t resonate with the word “God,” and to some it’s more than off-putting, but I believe that something/someone/somehow has got us. Call it the higher self. Call it the life force. Call it the Great Spirit. Call it Jesus or Buddha or pure love or real life. For me, God works just fine, shorthand for “the force that through the flower drives the green fuse” (to quote Dylan Thomas) as well as for the unconditional, abiding love we’re capable of giving and receiving.

Since surgery, I’ve come to the oasis of Cynthia’s words to refresh myself even and especially when I’m in pain. When post-surgery head pain and nausea dissolve into hours of exhaustion and restlessness. When an excruciating migraine wakes me up at 3 p.m. and I need to wait until daybreak to take my meds for it because they have caffeine. When surprise nausea hits for a few minutes, and more often, I’m rushing to the bathroom for bouts of digestive hell. When the itchiness and drainage of this right eye drive me crazy. When the fatigue and confusion of my left eye, surely mourning the loss of her partner for these five days, disorients me. When, which means most of the time, my right eye burns. When there’s little I can do but color and listen to birdsong.

But then there is birdsong, color, and all the ways God’s got me. When my close friends and mother’s voice on the voices tell me I’m still me in this good life. When Judy and Ken carefully rescue a green caterpillar caught against the screen porch screen so it can go on to transform into whatever butterfly it is next. When I listen to Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” or anything by Mary Chapin Carpenter on itunes. When Kelley shows up with soup that’s just what I need. When Ken and I laugh together at a scene in Northern Exposure for the hour each day I can watch something (I get too eye-tired after that). When I blessedly fall asleep on the porch to the tune of hummingbird buzz and the unseen birds on the left chatting up the unseen birds on the right. Whenever I look at the gorgeous bouquet of flowers my sister-in-law Karen and my nieces sent. There’s also texts full of heart emojis, our daughter’s voice on the phone, our son coming here each evening to patiently take our dog, a little freaked out that he can’t be near me, to my in-law’s home for the night, and mostly, there’s Ken, sick with some crazy virus himself but making me tea, sitting outside with me to take in the walls of green life, and talking with me when I otherwise would be talking myself up and down walls.

I can only hope others going through challenges, particularly those of you who are chronically ill in ways that keep unfolding in unpredictable or same-old-same-old ways, have such support holding you. At the least and the most, I wish that someone’s got you too (as in “gets” who you are and holds you), which makes me think of the ending of this Rainer Maria-Rilke poem (translated by Stephen Mitchell), “Autumn”:

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.

And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

 

And yet there is Someone, whose hands

infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

Wednesday, there’s both relief and another big passage ahead: the same surgery, but this time to remove the gold heart (as I’m thinking of it) full of radioactive seeds. I don’t know if I’ll see Cynthia, but I’ll wrap her words around me like a woven shawl of blues, greens, prayers, and wishes. As with everything, I don’t know what the aftermath of that surgery will be like, but I’m grateful to know God’s got me.

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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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