Although 2020 is already underfoot, this is my first blog post of the year, and it’s the first post that will go out to all of you who are subscribers since sometime in October when my website had some issues. Thanks to my soul brother Ravi’s generous time and ample wisdom, the sight is fully rehabbed, including automatic emails going out to subscribers again. So here’s a poem for the new year (an oldie but still relevant) and links to any posts you may have missed. I wish everyone and our world at large the peace that surpasses understanding and the courage to address what’s most broken in our lives and on our planet.
Prayer for the New Year
Let the blankets hold the shapes of our sleeping
all the dreams long. Let the cat on the dog’s bed
move over enough for the dog. Let the snow,
gathered tight to the afternoon sky, relax its grip
and show us the white contours of the new world.
Let the last one to leave the room close the lights
and the first one to rise make the coffee.
Let the sorrow we carry unfurl enough to reveal
its story’s ending, whether that ending is upon us
or still to come. Let the windows hold the pink gold
of the just-rising sun and the infinite blue darkening
of the rising night. Let the flowers and stones
make their ways to the gravestones of those we love
who left but never left, no matter how tender
the pain of their imprint. Let the flowers and stones
we collect to carry in our pockets and books
remind us of all that cycles its beauty through
the gift of this life. Let the quietest clearing
in prairie or woods, party of one or crowd of crows
land us exactly where we are. Let the rain come
and our unexpected shimmeying and leaping
alone in the living room. As well, let come
the storm warnings with time enough to find
a basement, the silver light of the winter horizon,
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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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.
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.
Emily Dickinson writes, “I started early — Took my dog.” In my case, I started late and took my croissant, and unlike Dickinson, I wasn’t looking for mermaids in the basement of the ocean or fleeing from the silver-tongued tide. Nope, I was savoring one flowering tree after another, that and buttery layers of flakey wonder.
Each spring, I hit the pause button on my life at some moment, and if I’m smart, many moments, and head out into the neighborhoods to worship at the fleeting faces of magnolia blossoms. Some weeks later, after the frost has zapped those magnolias brown-edged and fallen, I mosey along the lilac. I’ve also done lily-of-the-valley walks because those tiny white bells hold whole worlds of exquisite joy. This year, with winter holding its ground far later than usual and a sluggish spring, everything exploded into blossom at once, so a few days ago, I parked the car near the Barker Street bakery, got my provisions, and headed out into the blossoming world.
Instead of a somewhat orderly procession of daffodils before tulips and magnolias before redbuds, this year, everything is showing off at once. Turn a corner and behold! Lilac is just starting beside a spread of tulips. Cherry trees are partying on high, one happy hand of pink piled against another. Grape hyacinth sings the song of its people below a bevy of flowering dogwood and against the backdrop of Rhododendron (what are you doing so far west, Appalachian flowers?). From the ground, covered with thousands of slips of Bradford pear paper petals, to the heavens, framed with interlocking purple, pink, and white, the world is blooming faster than we can comprehend.
It’s also changing wildly fast after winter’s long dormant stretch of snow, ice, gray skies, and sudden jolts down in temperature, all of which makes life seem more monolithic than it is. What’s peaking today will be hollowing out in a week. What’s just opening its doors, flower by flower, will soon dissolve or fall away. That’s why I write and walk into this most springs: to acknowledge that yes, this is remarkable even if seasonal, and yes, we’re alive to bear witness to more than just the grief and insanity of the world.
Tomorrow, if I’m not an idiot, I’ll be the one walking slowly, phone in hand, to take pictures of what’s shining, to paraphrase poet Li-Young Lee, blossom to impossible blossom. I might even be crawling along the sidewalk to smell the lily-of-the-valley. Each bundle or spread or hidden conclave of flowers here, in all their power, demand no less.