A Visit to Scan Land: Everyday Magic, Day 1033

Why, yes, I’m drinking some iodine solution pre-scan. It just tastes like heavy water.

“I’m here for my monogram,” a silver-haired woman told the receptionist. “Yes, your mammogram,” the receptionist answered without missing a beat. Obviously, she had heard such variations before, and this is the way of Scan Land, where many — if not all of us — go every so often to make sure there’s nothing anxious or life-threatening growing, or growing too much, on our insides.

Yesterday, I returned to Scan Land for my quarterly CT scan or MRI to ensure that no micrometastases from my ocular melanoma were taking up residence in my liver or lungs. “How many of these have we done so far?” Ken asked me yesterday as we sat in the waiting room, me sipping the iodine water necessary for my CAT scan. I counted on my fingers: at least nine quarterly scans, and that doesn’t count the dozens of eye ultrasounds (amazing how you can get used to a tiny device moving back and forth on your eyeball) and another kind of scan that entails staring deep into a machine to watch the fires of Mordor.

I’ve made many excursions to Scan Land since 2002 when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Because I’m a carrier of the BRCA 1 genetic mutation (which increases risk for breast, ovarian, and other cancers) and because my dad and uncle died of pancreatic cancer, I was going annually for a CAT scan or MRI for years. With the scans related to the more recent cancer, if I could earn frequent flyer miles for all the hours I’ve spent in Scan Land, I could circle the globe.

To be honest, the scans aren’t painful, and because I’ve struggled with tight-spaces anxiety, they sure aren’t boring. But thanks to work with my therapist, meditation, medication, and if it’s a closed MRI, serious drugs, I’ve been able to get through them. That said, I’ve also experienced some of my worst panic attacks lying on a platform going in and out of a machine. I’ll never forget the 45-minute-long PET scan in a traveling scan-mobile parked outside the hospital which I hyperventilated and cried through before slowing my breath enough to see myself wandering a desert for a long night, searching for some sense of peace while reminding myself that this big, bad machine wasn’t going to hurt me.

I’ve worked through a lot of my scan issues, and yesterday, I did my first scan without any medication, and although I started to feel that rushing fight-or-flight sensation in my stomach, I remembered to breathe and listen to the song (Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” — even if it’s from a vampire movie) I always play on my ear buds. So now I’m mostly left with the end point for all who visit Scan Land: the results.

No matter what the results are, they are always extraordinary: good (thank heavens!), bad (Oh my God!) or ambiguous (Oh no!). We inhabits of the waiting rooms — before the scan and before the doctor’s visit to tell us the results — aren’t a cheery bunch for the most part, most of us somewhere between scared, hopeful, numb, resigned, sad, distracted, and freaked out. Waiting for the results is often the worst part of wrangling with cancer and other life-smashing illnesses.

Some doctors use the I’ll-call-you-if-it’s-fine-but-you-have-to-come-in-if-it’s-not approach, which makes for a terrifying drive to the doctor’s office, knowing bad news, possibly life-shortening, is about to assault us. Luckily, my oncologist has a better way: I have my scan in the morning, then go to her office at 1 p.m. no matter the results, which gives the worst of my imaginative capacities little time to get too riled up. Still, I usually have a twinge.

Then again, scans have saved my life more than once. A mammogram caught my breast cancer early enough that I could survive it. A constellation of eye and other scans led me to treatment in June of 2019 that so far (and continuing for many years to come, I hope, I hope, I hope) saved me. Yesterday was another clear scan, and once again I’m overwhelmingly grateful for my short trek in and out of this big donut-hole-shaped machine.

I remember years ago at my oncologist’s office seeing two women — one middle-aged and one older, a mother and daughter — walk in the door clutching each other and sobbing. They were sure they were there for bad news, and it was hard for them to answer the receptionist’s questions as she checked them in. Eventually, they were called back to meet with the doctor as was I. When I was checking out, they were too, and this time they were crying for a different reason. They had gotten good news, and they were so overcome with relief and joy that they couldn’t stop weeping. I had gotten good results too that day, a good day in Scan Land for us all.

Birds Are the Best Thing About Winter: Everyday Magic, Day 1029

Female cardinal — photo by Len Scotto

When the temperature gets near or below zero, survival comes into sharper focus for us all, but so do birds and their survival without the benefit of fleece and indoor nesting.

So we feed the birds, but just as much for us as for them, sometimes hourly re-lining the deck ledge with a thick line of bird seed, emphasis on the black sunflower seeds they love so much. This smorsgasbord draws a constant wave of birds, dining side by side with little fuss, even when a squirrel joins the mix. The only thing that disrupts the long counter in Bird Diner is Mr. Bluejay, who freaks everyone the hell away until he gets his meal and departs.

I came to loving birds later in life, not really noticing them much until I had breast cancer in 2002. I quickly found out — and this has been verified so many times in facilitating writing classes for people living with serious illness — that there’s something about struggling through hard-nosed chemo, radiation, surgery recovery, or drug side effects that point our faces toward the window. For one thing, many of us in the throes of such grappling don’t have the bandwidth to do more that stare at walls, ceilings, and even better, windows. We slow way down, and voila! Were there always so many birds?

White-throated sparrow — photo by Len Scotto

When I was tunneling through some dark stretches of eye cancer, it was birds again, but in a different way. Light hurt my right eye for so long (just months, but felt longer) that I would lie on the porch futon with a towel over my eyes and listen. Birdsong and calls, whether for food or love or territory, engulfed me. It was sometimes like being rocked in a cradle of bird sound, each sway showing me how vibrant and beautiful the world was even if I couldn’t look directly at it.

This winter I realized how much bird gazing is the best part of my day. When they meander off to roost in late afternoon, I feel sad, but when I wake up the next morning, the birds are the first view I most want (well, first checking my email on my phone, but still….). Muriel Rukeyser wrote in one of her poem, “The universe is made of turtles/ not of atoms,” and while that’s clearly true, I think a lot of those stories are made of birds, especially the winter, illness or other-time-sequestered-away (hello, pandemic!) stories.

Flicker (yes, part of the woodpecker family) — photo by Len Scotto

Like right now: there’s two male cardinals, a female cardinal alighting to grab a sunflower seed, then flitting back to the branch. There’s always juncos, sometimes chickadees, an occasional goldfinch, many an adorable titmouse, little brindled sparrows, and the splendor of the flicker and the red-bellied woodpecker dazzling me, especially on overcast days. There’s the crow, solitary on the deck railing, tilting her head to the left to tune into the secrets of what gleams. Soon they should be bluebirds, my favorite of bird nirvana. And all the birds are puffed out to maximum birdness, warming themselves in their balls of feather.

Miyako the cat and I watch from the blind of the windows, me puffed out myself in layers of clothes, and her doing that crazy-cat chittering that’s almost as entertaining as the birds. Our eyes follow them away, then back down, a united states of birdland here for us all.

Thank you so much to a spectacular photographer and dear friend, Len Scotto, for these amazements in photography.

What is a Bad Year? What is a Good Year? Everyday Magic, Day 1024

A friend told me that during her Christmas Zoom with family scattered far and wide, she realized how lucky they were: no one had Covid, lost their life or their job, and all had warm homes with ample food and holidays delights within easy reach. The next day I saw a line rush by on Twitter: “You didn’t have a bad year if the worst you experienced was not being able to go on vacation.”

So who is having a truly bad year? One of my coaching clients found in her research that about one third or more of us are comfy and cozy with adequate employment and health (although these numbers are in flux). The rest of Americans are struggling with what the headlines sum up as unemployment or underemployment, food insecurity, and inadequate or non-existent healthcare — all of which push them into situations where they face greater risks of exposure to Covid.

No surprise, that people who face greater economic disparity, are communities (Black, Latino, Native American, and others — more here) with the highest percentages of coronavirus. Overlapping with this, anyone who tends to have a low-paying or minimum wage job — such as people working in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc. — can’t work from home….that is, if they’re working at all. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young people and people in the service industry (who are sometimes one and the same). My daughter, who left a serving job a year ago, says that 80% of her server friends are out of work, which mirrors statistics I’ve seen.

Then there’s the pain we can’t measure with statistical data: those grieving beloveds lost to Covid as well as those living with long-term health impacts from the disease. When the pandemic came home to roost in March, I remember so many conversations with people about how strange it was to have something largely invisible wreaking such havoc. Now, for just about everyone I know, it’s all too real. A dear friend lost her husband last Saturday after weeks of him being intubated. One of my old high school pals’ mom died, isolated in a nursing home with no family to comfort her, a few weeks ago. Friends in Minnesota, family in Wichita, pals around town tell of how it was the sickest they ever felt or not so horrendous but very strange (and still no sense of smell and taste has returned) or they’re relatively over it, but now they have asthma for life. I know people who are long-haulers, meaning the virus comes back to send them to bed every few weeks or months. There are other stories any of us, some of those stories our own, could add to this list.

But it’s not just the pandemic making 2020 an agony of year for many people: there’s the record-number of fires in California and Colorado and many western states in between. Although my friends out yonder aren’t struggling to stay inside with all the windows sealed because of dangerous air quality right now, many of them know and see the impacts. Amazing ecological writer Barry Lopez, who died this week, lost his home to the fires after years of writing about climate change and its personal and collective impacts. There are thousands of people rebuilding or trying to rebuild after losing everything. It was also one of the most active and destructive hurricane seasons ever (more here) with so many people losing homes, businesses, and even their communities to flooding.

All of this is to say that there’s a big gap between those of us who are healthy, homed, and moneyed enough, even if we’re also holding the weight of collective despair, fear, and anger, and those of us living on or over the edge of poverty, home or food insecurity, grief and heartbreak. How we define good or bad is often a personal and idiosyncratic thing, but one thing we can likely all agree on: it’s been a year like no other, and the totality of 2020’s pain and suffering hurts any feeling person’s heart.

Many say that humans are at their best in the worst of times, and that seems true too. I’ve seen — and likely you have too — so many altruistic acts of love, such as Meg Heriford’s commitment to transform her diner into a place offering free, hot meals (good ones too) to anyone in need along with pantry boxes and blankets (see the Washington Post article on her here). People I don’t know have reached out on Facebook to support me and others. Those I see on walks in the wetlands wave and say hello, clearly smiling under their masks. Most of us have given more contributions to more good work this year than in the last decade altogether. Just the other day on a 3-hour call (don’t ask) with AT&T customer assistance, I had a heart-to-heart with a service rep in Indonesia who wanted to make sure, in addition to fixing an account issue, that I was staying safe and had eaten a good lunch. Tenderness is afoot.

Yet here we are, on the cusp of 2021, and where I am, the sky is clouding over and preparing to likely paint the world in snow. I welcome the peace, I’m grateful to be warm and well-cared-for, and I’m enthralled with and in love with all the goodness innate in us also.

Why I Won’t Watch the Debates: Everyday Magic, Day 1018

Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in Gaslight

Gaslighting. What a useful word that, when I first heard it, snapped a whole lot of abuse and shaming I suffered into a new and true reality. That’s because gaslighting is manipulating someone into questioning her take on the world, and at its most extreme, her sanity.

The term for this systematic psychological manipulation originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light and was popularized in the 1944 film of the same title (starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten). In Gaslight, a husband convinces his wife that she’s insane, mostly by incremental changes in their home, such as slowly dimming their gas lights while acting as if nothing has changed.

Having grown up with a father who constantly beat into me (by word and by hand) that reality was a land that didn’t include me or I obviously couldn’t even grasp, I grew up sensitized to many manner of experiences that reinforced gaslighting. Being a woman in a patriarchal culture with the added layer of working in academia for 33 years (which, even among spectacular educators and student-centered learning, has plenty of tiny gaslight villages) provided me with lots of grist for the mill.

I’ve been a teenager told her calling to be a poet was a pipe dream. I’ve been a young reporter, activist, non-profit employee, and faculty member told that her ideas were “interesting” with a patronizing chuckle or told I didn’t understand how things are because I was too young, female, naive, sensitive, intense, or other terms was used to put me on the shelf. As I developed new things that did mirror Reality with a capital R — such as Transformative Language Arts, which focuses on learning who we and our communities are through arts-based inquiry and experiential learning — I faced years of academic edition gaslighting, often manifested in men telling me what was and wasn’t real scholarship or the purpose of an education.

How many times have I and so many of us (especially if you’re female, LGTBQ, living with serious illness or disability, a person of color, or low income) sat in rooms where someone *calmly* and *logically* mansplained to us why what we asked or said was irrational, unrealistic, impossible, or just crazy-wrong? How many times have we heard “Let’s not let our emotions run away with us” by someone who was backhoeing in made-up rationale actually based on their emotions and on burying our spirits? How many times have we heard we’re too much or not enough?

Even writing this post, I realize my hands are shaking and my heart is racing because I — like so many of us — have had to endure people in power trying to turn down the gas lights of my own and so many others’ innate power to create, speak our truths, and live authentically. Make no mistake about this: gaslighting is all about power. It’s designed to take away, diminish, or otherwise obliterate our power to believe in ourselves, to speak and act for change, and to feel the full weight of our voices and visions.

Which brings me to why I won’t watch the debates.

The two specimens from the party in office exemplify two sides of the gaslighting coin. One screams, belittles, sabotages, name-calls, changes course in a split-second, and yells some more. The other talks steadily wearing a mask of calm logic completely impenetrable to all reality except for a fly landing on his head. Both divert, obstruct, talk over others, and are obviously convinced that any agreed-upon rules or norms don’t apply to them. They also both use the formula of lie, deny, and repeat multiplied exponentially until they and their followers believe what they say is as solid as bedrock.

I’m not saying the challenging party is perfect, but they are talking some undeniable reality: Yes, climate change is real. Yes, Covid-19 is far more deadly than the flu, and hey, America has 4% of the world population, and over 20% of the cases of this lethal and, if you survive, potentially life-long disease. Yes, people of color are systematically targeted by many police departments, and they die and suffer at much higher rate due to racism, the pandemic, and economic disparities.

I believe that the debates are important in showing us more of what this next election is truly about, and they can be helpful in both mobilizing the base (for both candidates) as well as helping undecided voters decide. But as someone who is a recovering gaslight survivor, I have left and will leave the room each time they’re on, taking long, slow deep breaths, reminding myself that I’m not in any danger at this moment, and opening my heart to all of us who have been told there’s something deeply wrong with who we are and what we know. And I will tell us now and again: you are enough.

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.”