Like most of us living in the ever-expansive pandemic lands, I’m looking toward a pocket-size gathering of just our household and our sister-in-law (part of our posse and pod) with the windows cracked open, chairs set far apart, and masks on when not eating. Two out of our three kiddos will be Zooming in, and we’ll likely call other family, including my sisters having a bigger outside gathering because they don’t live in a place that hosts winter.
It’s an odd sensation to be planning a meal for so few. While my sister-in-law is doing the heavy lifting of heavy carbs (stuffing, mashed potatoes, dessert, and oh yeah, the turkey and gravy), and my son is baking the rolls, we’re all about the fruit and vegetables here. We seem to be mainly about cranberries though. I bought four bags of them, figuring we might as well have twice what we need for Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish (oh, the wonders of mixing sour cream, onions, horseradish, and cranberries). Then Ken, thinking we had forgotten the cranberries, bought a whole bunch more. In the end, we probably have 32 ounces of cranberries per person, so they’ll likely be cranberries in the carrot salad, cranberry muffins, cranberry stir-fries, and other ways to use these tart little bursts.
Then again, when I think about it, the cranberry might be the perfect fruit for the resilience and adaptability we need for 2020. They usually need to be sweetened to taste good, but they fare well frozen, fresh, dried, or tossed into an infinite amount of recipes. They also call on us to be more imaginative and adventurous while tending the home fires (or stovetop or oven). They also bring together, in one small bite, the sweet, tart, tangy, bitter, and surprising taste of time.
Which leads me back to this time when all these holidays and traditions we do alone or with our laptops at the table, will next year (I hope and pray) seem so outrageously rare. What will it be like to look back on 2020 Passovers, Easters, July Fourths, Thanksgivings, and all those fabled December holidays as the great exception to the rule, the big rock in the river of our lives that we paddled around, the deviation to the norm? At the same time, like biting into an unexpected cranberry, this time is the strange episode that makes us see the story behind and ahead of us with new eyes that can take in a wider vista of gratitude.
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.
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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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.
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Years ago when I was in the oncology center waiting room for an appointment following my bout of breast cancer, two women made me cry. One was in her 70s, and the other was her middle-aged daughter, both clinging to each other and having a hard time answering questions because of their sobbing while they checked in to hear test results. I was soon called back to see my oncologist, and so were they, but I saw them again on my way out, both of them laughing and crying at once, still clinging to each other. A nurse who escorted them out hugged them and said, “I’m so happy for you.” They arrived in terror and left in joy.
I know those feelings pretty well. Since those dreaded “you-have-cancer” words first entered my orbit in 2002, I’ve been on the scan bus, making more stops than I would have expected because I was also diagnosed with BRCA 1, one of the breast cancer mutations. Add to this that my father and uncle died young from pancreatic cancer, and MRIs entered the mix. Then there was the ocular melanoma last summer, and now, post-treatment for that, I’m a regular in our hospital’s radiology department.
Last Friday, I had my second seasonal (every three months for many years) scan to make sure what was in my eye didn’t travel. Because this type of cancer, when it has legs (and I pray it doesn’t), usually shows up in the liver and sometimes in the lungs, I had an abdominal and chest CT scan (used to be called a CAT scan, although there’s little purring, involved), and some blood work. I was scared beforehand but not as scared as the first one last fall, and far less scared than the parade of of scans last spring. In the week before the scan, I had a few seconds here and there of full-body terror that makes me feel like I’m both thoroughly embodied in terror and also on the outside looking in. But I’ve learned fear storms are just another kind of weather that moves through: keep breathing, drink some water, tell yourself it’s just a strong emotion that will ebb, and eventually, the sky clears.
Getting scans to see what’s happening under the hood is something many of us endure. I know so many people living with and recovering from many health challenges, all of which require showing up on time, sometimes drinking strange fluids or having dye injected into us, and then being ferried in and out of large, sometimes (in the case of MRIs) outrageously loudly-clanging machines. There’s also other tests of trepidation many of us go through that show whether we’re in the money or up shit’s creek. My scans and health history aren’t more challenging than what many others go through, and I have a lot of “there but for the grace go I” moments when I hear of friends who are facing degenerative diseases, chronic pain, and terminal diagnoses (although life is such a diagnosis). Then again, comparison of our learning edges and life challenges is a futile activity.
I’ve learned and am continually learning to stay calmer, working through my phobia of being restricted in the grips of a machine. Last summer, my wonderful oncologist Sherri Soule gave me a prescription for a lot of Lorazepam, a low dose anti-anxiety drug. I wondered why she prescribed so many, but now that I’ve had that refilled twice, I know sometimes we need a little pharmaceutical help. I also have a GABA spray I highly recommend for moments that activate our fight or flight response. Like many of us, I practice slow, deep breathing, listen to music (especially during scans, and I’m sure Enya was invented for MRIs), and bring along Ken and sometimes other support people.
For this last scan, I found extra support in the technician, a lovely woman named Melissa who remembered me from last time, talked over the singers I was listening to my iPhone during the scan (Brandi Carlile and Carrie Newcomer), and treated me with such energetic tenderness that she put me at ease. Then there was the wait for results, best spent not speculating — we distracted ourselves by getting brunch at Wheatfields, reveling in the glory of bread. I’m so grateful that my oncologist doesn’t play the phone game (a call if all is fine or a “you need to come in right away” if it’s not) and meets with me a few hours after the scans. As she came in smiling, telling me all was well, to my surprise I started crying, but that’s pretty common with scans.
Each scan is another tumble with seeing how mortal we are. Recently, my therapist and I realized that it wasn’t the scanning machines — CT scans, MRIs, and Pet scans — that freaked me out as much as what the scans might read. At the same time, the whole process makes me fall more in love with this life, enough to spend a long and healthy lifetime grappling with what I keep discovering here.