I thought a global pandemic was enough: enough pain, suffering, fear, restriction, uncertainty, and dread. Turns out I was wrong. We now have violent riots (most of which, from all I’m reading in the news and hearing from eye witnesses, seem fueled by outside forces bent on division and hatred) topping off hundreds of peaceful protests, the national guard called into 20 states (as of this morning), a president ratcheting up the tension with deadly threats, and a whole lot of people being further exposed to the coronavirus. I don’t dare ask if attack monkeys are about to fall from the sky or dog-size locusts will soon sweep across the land.
In the world of cognitive dissonance, which is our world writ large lately, there is also this: the wind sweeping up and across the cottonwood tree in that way that tells me summer has landed. Three indigo buntings on the ground under the bird feeder. Carpenter bees floating above the windows. Moxie the dog pressing her jaw into the deck and falling asleep. The early evening shadows competing with the last long rays of afternoon across the grass, which is full of ticks, chiggers, and other summer pests.
There is all of this: “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd’s last words as well as the last words of too many others murdered out of hatred and bigotry — and all this summer air inhaling and exhaling us, day by day. I understand that I can’t fully understand what it is to have my life threatened because of race, to live with the weight of that for days, years, generations. But I can respect the rage and pain, and for all those suffering, I can, remembering a song Kelley Hunt leads us in at Brave Voice each year, breathe in the peace I’m so privileged to find right here and now, and breathe out love for all who are hurting. I can also do the usual things: march, write, give money, support people acting for the good, and keep educating myself on what it means to be an ally.
I can also embrace another slant of cognitive dissonance as I wish for the peace that surpasses understanding to take root everywhere right now.
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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I sit on the morning porch, the hedge apples across from me growing into softball-sized green brains, soon to be heavy enough that we’ll need to avoid parking our cars under them. The birds to the west chirp, interrupting the steady buzz of cicadas and crickets to the east. All is apparently as peaceful as the cat asleep on the chair beside me, but of course, this is just one moment in a world on fire.
For the last three weeks, the Amazon burns, and just today, according to The New York Times, more than 500 Brazilian government employees signed a letter of warning that the country’s environmental protections could easily collapse. The leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro and others has fanned the flames of land-grabbing to the extent that over 27,400 fires are burning right now. While the reality about Amazon fires is far more complicated that news bites about the lungs of the world burning (see this recent article in Forbes for more), the undeniable reality, seen from space even, shows the massive expanse of the fires. Political fires between the G7 and the Brazilian president burn their own through-lines without any clarity of what can be done and if it can done soon enough.
Meanwhile, humongous fires burning for over three months in Siberia, a result of climate change, send “a cloud of soot and ash as large as the countries that make up the entire European Union” through the northern reaches of Russia, according to the BBC. Thousands of migrant children, separated from their parents and imprisoned in detention centers, are suffering not just the immediate loss of a sense of safety and nurturance but developing long-term traumatic effects that may well greatly diminish their potential and well-being. The politics of polarity seems to gather strength, just as Tropical Storm Dorian — predicted to be a powerful hurricane soon — pitting us against each other a thousand ways each day.
The world is on fire in ways that seem to be and may well be worse than ever before — especially with the speedy unfolding of climate changes already impacting our planet and threatening to turn forests into deserts and nations into wastelands — yet it’s also true that the world is always on fire. I was thinking of how my friend Judy, a Zen master and fellow lover of the perfect bagel, once told me this over 30 years ago, so I searched for the origin of this reality and found the Ādittapariyāya Sutta: The Fire Sermon, given by Buddha to 1,000 monks. Part of it reads:
Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.
This makes sense to me, and yet, and yet, and yet: how do I reconcile the real fires — the deep and abiding suffering happening right now to children in detention facilities or in the Amazon to countless animals (including humans) and plants, and the roots of this suffering growing exponentially to all our detriment — with the eternal fire of being alive without getting numbly complacent (or worse, complacently cynical) or hopeless (or worse, hopelessly immobilized, kind of a trap for those of us who are privileged enough to not be in the fire at the moment)?
I don’t know. I only know how to sit here at this moment, take in the volume of cicadas, growing louder as the heat rises, and feel such heartbreak and gratitude for this world.
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The week began with news that blew me away: a beloved colleague, who was the rock and heart of the college where I work, died suddenly. Then the wind picked up to the tune of 50-plus mph gusts that shook the house around my shaken heart.
The wind, part of a weather system called a bombogenesis, was so strong that I had to postpone a classroom visiting and reading in Hutchinson, Kansas, 200 miles from here, because it was too risky to drive without being blown off the road or into oncoming traffic. The grief my college community feels is so strong that it’s hard for many of us to stay on the road of whatever task we’re following, and we share our pain as well as love for our colleague through phone calls and emails.
There are times in life when we’re blown-away: blasted out of our usual ways of being or thinking, maybe even out of our minds too. It’s hard to sleep, think, remember to turn off the stove or step outside into the wild yet grounding presence of the world. It’s scary and edgy, strange and familiar, and altogether a moment that shines and blares how vulnerable we are, how precious our lives, and how fast things can change.
Yet I also recognize that at such times, I’ve blown right into the center of my heart, however flawed and confused it is. There’s nothing like being blown away to make me stop in my tracks, see that they are somewhat arbitrary tracks to begin with, and reconnect with what matters: being kind, loving, and empathetic. Staying as safe as possible and off the roads to potential danger when the big winds come. Taking care of myself and others as best I can. Catching up on sleep, the dishes, and remembering to feed the birds.
Today the sun shines brightly and the wind is below 20 mph. But elsewhere in the world, people are being blown away by the mass shooting hate crime in New Zealand and the fast-moving floods swallowing whole towns in Nebraska. Bombogeneses usually happen over the ocean, intensifying hurricanes, but they’ve proven they can happen over the land, and when it comes to human behavior, a sudden intensifying of damage and loss can also drop to new lows.
In the aftermath of such wild weather, we can recognize why why we’re alive, which I think always has to do with showing up, even with a trembling heart, for ourselves and each other especially when we’re most blown away.