Monday, December 29, 2008

Taking off from a New Year’s meme

I’ve done this meme in past years. I’m doing it now because I’ll be in the car all day, back and forth from the dermatologist, on New Year’s Eve. (I really don’t want to make that drive—but I still have this ridiculous rash, and I’d like it to be seen before February.) I’m going to the Ranch when it opens again after the holiday break, and I’ll be mostly there until Epiphany West.

So, here again is a paragraph of more-or-less nonsense, disjointed story-telling, the year in fast-forward. If you want to play, take the first sentence from every month in your 2008, and string them together.

Sleepily checking in from NOLA; it's 3:16 am West Coast time. I had another calling-dream, last night. Have to write a reflection paper; it was due a week ago. I’ve been only peripherally blogging, for awhile. I’m just going to sketch yesterday out, so you’ll know what you might expect if you or a friend ever has to ride this rollercoaster, and for my friends who are watching me. I am still so scared, underneath everything. Because my liver is toxic—and I don’t feel as bad as that sounds—I get to go back to the Ranch this weekend! I took a whirlwind trip to Berkeley yesterday, to keep an appointment at school. I had a conversation over IM with a friend [in New Orleans] this morning. The hardest thing is the unpredictability. No sicker than usual, but my wireless is. Still here, just busy… and trying to work through nausea, headaches, and no brain.

I had no idea, when I wrote that check-in from St. Andrew’s parish house in New Orleans last New Year’s Day, where I’d be a year later. (I could have guessed, curled up under a blanket on the floor in my best friend’s office, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) This year has taken me places I would never have imagined.

A conversation over sushi, a few days before Christmas:

“I’m still talking about losing my fears… and a year ago, I went to New Orleans alone. For a month. Before I had cancer.”
“I was scared, but I knew I’d be okay once I got there. And I was.”
“That’s the difference. You had to be brave. Now, you’d just go.”
“Well, yeah. Now I have friends there.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Oh. Yeah, now I’d ‘just go’ to Timbuktu.”

Let me say, again, as clearly as ever I can: Cancer sucks, but I would NOT give it back. This whole journey has given me way more than it took. I would never have found this fearlessness, if I had not had to. I would never have learned to trust myself, or my community, or my God, the way I do now. I would not be who I am, without the past eight months. Or the next six, until my treatment’s over. This will be working in me for a long, long time. And I want it to.

I miss my brain. But I can do things from here, that I could not do when I was well. I’ll get the cognitive function back. And I’ve become so much more spiritually open, and intuitive. I want to hold on to that.

I never want to forget how deeply and unspeakably grateful I am, to be alive.

I’ve known for some time, that the biopsy scar on my neck makes me human. I’m learning what that truly means. I touch it now, frequently, in utter thanksgiving. I have this story. I am a cancer survivor. I have a wound I can never deny—and I have the healing of it. I can go places I had no entry into, when I could act like I’d never been touched.

[I’m thinking here of Jacob wrestling with the angel. All that the angel finally had to do was touch him—and Jacob limped forever. But we all do. It’s just that some of us fight it, or don’t know it, or deny it. Jacob went everywhere he needed to go, the way that he needed to get there.]

I don’t believe that God gave me cancer. But God moved into the space that cancer made.

The nerves around my neck incision still feel a little sleepy. My jawline tingles, still. I’m not in a hurry for that to recede. I have no need to feel “normal.” I know this is a place I could get stuck in—but I want to fully inhabit where I am, before I move on.

We went to church in Capitola yesterday, before wandering out to the beach and the redwoods. (Big trees, and wet muck between bare toes—a glorious afternoon.) The sermon touched on “side effects.” She said something like, “perhaps leprosy, or insanity, may be a side effect of finding God.”

I’ve been rubbing that together in my fingers, ever since. I’m still not sure how I’d phrase it for myself. I’m not sure whether getting cancer (and going through it the way I did, and am) is a side effect of finding God—or whether finding God is a side effect of becoming truly human. Whatever the conjunction, I can’t separate them. Both happened. The wound healed me.

I know too much about resurrection, not to believe with all my soul.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

I woke from this dream

on Christmas morning:

I was walking through wintery woods, crunching the snow under my feet. It was full daylight, though it was very cold. I was alone. Everything was quiet. The forest was peaceful, yet trembling. There was a sense that the world was about to change.

I came upon a perfectly-laid fire, on the ground, in the snow, in the middle of nowhere. There was still nobody around. I knew, like you know these things, that this was just waiting for someone intended to light it. I didn’t know whether it was a traveler’s fire, or whether it was specifically mine. But I knew that someone (God or human) had left this for a person to find. This was a place, safe and warm, where you could wait for the Christ-child to come.

Not the original, incarnational Jesus. I was walking in Northwest woods, nowhere near Bethlehem, in our own time. This was a place, made by somebody and left to be found, where you could wait in hope until the world changed forever.

The woods knew that was happening tonight. The animals, and the trees, were full of expectation. Then, all would be love. There would be no unsafe places.

I came upon this fire, waiting for me or someone to light it. I had all this awareness. I knew it was a place of peace—and I was full of questions. Did God lay this fire, or a human? Is it meant for someone else, or for me? Is it okay if I keep exploring; am I insulting them if I don’t stay here? Should I keep going; let it be found by someone who needs it more than I do?

Because what I really wanted to do was to keep walking, to go deeper and wilder, to seek my own safety, to build my own fire. I was caught between accepting or rejecting someone else’s hospitality (not a good idea if that someone else is God), and being where I know I’m called to be, out on the very edges, where the wind is wild and the animals wilder, where anything can happen and you don’t know what you’ll find. I knew that if I built a fire, somewhere lonelier and colder, there would be warmth and light there.

That’s the relationship I’m called to be in, with God and the world, right now. But I was still considering these questions, in my dream, when I woke up.

And right now, I really want to go walking in the woods.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Wisdom from a street retreat

I took pages of notes yesterday, and promised earlier that I’d post them. It doesn’t seem important right now, to share specific stories. Right now, I don’t care how the man handing out juice at St. Anthony’s soup kitchen looked at me, for instance. Describing exactly how the neighborhood “park” looked and felt like a jail, would only cloud my point.

What I need to do, is to say succinctly what I wrote in the direction of this morning. I need to articulate the lesson I took away from the experience, which none but God sought to teach me.

I purposely didn’t bring money with me, other than a BART pass. I wanted to know how it would feel to be in the city without it, and to be able to look people in the eye and say, “I haven’t got it,” when they asked. (As part of the Night Ministry, I’m not allowed to give money out even if I were inclined to. And I’m tired of lying.) I carried essentials like water, paper and pen, the neighborhood map they gave us. In my jeans pockets, I carried a handful of cough drops—which I ended up giving away—and an acorn from the Ranch.

The acorn was a purposeful addition; I wanted a touchstone. I wanted to be able to ground myself, if at any point I needed to connect (with nature, or deep breathing, or whatever). I never used it.

But I realized, not even until this morning when I was writing: I have been as afraid as I am ever going to be—and it was not in the Tenderloin. My fear of cancer, and my walking through that fear, gave me the freedom to go anywhere. I can be with people, and in places, in ways that I never could have—not because I was too na├»ve or frightful, but because I didn’t have the experience that has grounded me. I’m not going to do anything stupid, just to challenge my fear. I don’t need to. I’m already safe, everywhere I go.

I realized, I can carry whatever I want to—or walk with empty pockets. Acorns, cough drops, coins from the street, it doesn’t matter. What I bring with me, what I pick up and turn over and share, are rocks from the ground of God.

I was never told, like Margaret, that I would die. I was told that I could. I didn’t, and I’m making myself sick for a year to fight the chance of a much more dangerous recurrence. She told me to go barefoot at the Ranch, as much as I could, when it was warmer. She was right to remind me. But now I understand her real point. I have lived in the face of fear of dying. I have been to some very dark places. I found there healing, grace, fearlessness, and love. I threw my body into this, and I let the learning transform me. I have walked, and I walk now, on holy ground.

May it always be so.

Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now

Got my hand on the gospel plow,
Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on...

I’ve been thinking a lot about last April.

I just came back from a week at the Ranch. I told the story whenever it came up, which was often—talking with a Franciscan sister whom I’d never met, seeing a friend I hadn’t seen since before last spring, bumping into a new acquaintance who’d only seen me at school. “Yes, the Ranch is my other gig… the semester’s over, but I’m not, because interferon makes it really hard for me to focus, and I’m always exhausted. Oh, I had a stage II melanoma last spring.”

I’ve lived with this for eight months, almost. I’ve told it so often, that telling it is easy. I’d say, “I had cancer,” and watch their faces change. They’d be thinking, “oh my God, poor you.” I’d quickly respond, “As far as we can see, they got it,” just to make them feel better. I am not poor; I am grateful to be alive. I would not trade who I am now for who I was then, or who I would be if I’d never had to face this.

Was talking with one of the Franciscans; we’re going to be exploring spiritual direction together. She wanted my story. I told her, I remember being back up here last summer, while I was on a reprieve from treatment. I remember saying to someone, in July, “Haven’t I survived this yet?” And no, I really hadn’t. While you’re a survivor from the first second you’re diagnosed, and the transformation begins in that instant, living through treatment takes you places I don’t even know if I can articulate yet. (The frustrating thing is that it takes your faculties away while you’re in it, so it’s harder to think, process, and communicate.) I’m still only halfway through. My last injection will be six months and one week from last Friday.

I hate being achy and exhausted and behind in everything. It’s frustrating not to be able to do what I used to do, and what I want to do. But I’m also grateful for this time. I’m able to ask questions, and go places (in myself and around me) that I wouldn’t have known existed. My teachers and friends and community members give me the grace to do what I need to do.

One of the greatest gifts is the utter loss of fear. I remember that first week. While I’m aware of how afraid I was, and can still get into that feeling place, most of what I remember is love. I was scared to death—but I only panicked on the phone with the doctor. After that, I did what I had to do. And my community thoroughly embraced me.

There are still tasks I don’t want to do—but I truly fear almost nothing, now. And I’ve learned so much about the gift of presence. Before last April, I was fearful all the time of being judged, and of not being good enough. Now, the people whose judgements I feared are some of my strongest allies. I know that they’re there for me. I know that they want to support me, and that they love me. I trust them.

I also trust myself. I’ve become so much more open. I’ve been where I don’t want to go again—and I’ve seen, and touched, and held the things that grow there. I brought back some rocks with me, in my pocket. I can go anywhere, now.

Including back into that place, as alone as I ever am, or accompanying others.

I can imagine being afraid, if the cancer recurs. I’ll give myself compassion if I am. But the most it can do is kill me. Death is only scary, the first time you stare at it. We know who we are. We know where we’re going. My whole experience of God has opened up.

God is not a personified image in my head anymore, at all. I realized that, sometime yesterday. God is, simply, love, interwoven into every fiber of the universe’s being. In what appears as a sterile concrete jungle, flowers. In the last places you'd think to look, grace.

[Which makes "Father" even harder to say, and more ridiculous, when God is "Ground."]

I have the faith that only comes from experience. And I escaped with my life. How can I be, other than grateful? How can I be, other than radically trusting? I feel, in the cosmic sense, safe. Completely.

I spent yesterday mostly alone, in the Tenderloin. I was on a street retreat with the Faithful Fools, as a requirement for volunteering with them. It was the first time I’d ever hung out there in the daytime, other than Open Cathedral. I took pages of notes, and I’ll post them later. For now, I’ll just say that I went the whole day without talking about cancer, until one of the RC Franciscans and I rode home together on BART. I only thought about it once, when I realized that I can’t do the week-long Holy Week retreat, not because I’m afraid of sleeping outside (I won’t take a shelter bed from someone who needs it), but because I need access to refrigeration.

I just got to be me, all day. Not me-with-limitations that I had to explain. Not, “I know I look great; I feel like crap.” Not, “I can’t walk this fast.” Just, me.

I really liked it. I’m looking forward to cancer being a story I tell when I choose to, and use quietly when I choose to. Everyone around me knows I had it—either because they’re in community with me, or because they need to know what I can and can’t do. I’m looking forward to simply living in the world, as the person I will have become.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The best not-quite-job ever

I’m up at the Ranch this week, working the Advent silent days. I’m hosting the odd lunch or dinner, and checking people in during the afternoons. Right now, I’m watching the wind and rain outside, and waiting for more arrivals. I can’t escape the brothers, even (or especially) here—and some of them are coming up today. I will shortly be hugged by three sopping wet monks.

And I’m wearing wool. Oh, well.

I love blustery weather! And I love hot soup on cold, wet days. I was blissed out over my lunch—and that’s big news, for someone who hasn’t eaten sufficiently since June. (It was miso soup w/ veggies, salad, bread and cheese, and a bulghur-artichoke concoction. Yum.)

My leftover homework is still with me, and my brain is still gone—but my body feels so much better up here. I’m still tired to the bone—but I’m not so relentlessly miserable.

I’ll be here until Friday. I’m going back to the city for a street retreat with the Faithful Fools on Saturday. To A’s house for Christmas, early next week. And I’ll be between there, here, and the Bay Area through January.

Note to Margaret, Paul, and anyone else who loves the place: The current newsletter (not on the website yet) mentions necessary upkeep on the treehouse. If you want to help, contact Sean.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Still here, just busy

…and trying to work through nausea, headaches, and no brain. This is the last week of the term, and I have more to do than I will be able to do. But then I’m going to the Ranch for at least a week, and I’ll spend the rest of December and January catching up.

I got a flicker of amazing news, earlier in the week. Someone said to me that when we met, two years ago, I seemed very fragile. (I damn sure was.) He said he doesn’t see that in me now.

I worked for that. Not the feedback from him—which was a wonderful surprise (that surprises no one else). I worked to overcome woundedness, to be less reactive, to become whole. A few close friends, and one particular teacher, know how hard I worked it. Then cancer came, and did the rest.

I don’t ever, ever, ever want to get cancer again. But I am not sorry that I had it. Cancer gave me more than it took.

I was working these things. But I would not be where I am—I would not be who I am—without these past seven months. I would not have the soul that I have now. I would not have this deep strength.

To hear him say that I’ve lost my fragility, and to hear others echo, “well yeah it’s obvious,” makes it real. I’m not saying that my worth is on them. But it means that what I see and feel and know is beyond my own head, and beyond my safest relationships. This is who I am in the world now.

A couple of people told me today, that I looked like I was healing. They know better than to assume that since I look great, I must feel better as well. I told them, “I am. It’s just not physical.”

That is worth a stage II melanoma. It’s worth a surgery that only marked me if you know where you’re looking. It’s worth actively making myself sick for a year. It’s worth even the knowledge that I won’t be considered clear until 2013, and I’ll have to be very careful about my health insurance until we have a system change.

I’m thankful every day that it was only a stage II. Cancer scared me enough, to teach me how to live. And it was not lethal.

But it gave me what I needed.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


My best friend and I were supposed to see her, a few years ago. She (Odetta) got sick at the last minute.

She's rocking with the angels, now.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What I've done

From Caminante, among others.

1. Started my own blog
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band

(loosely—church retreat worship group, as a teen)
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than I can afford to charity
Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain
(loosely—hiked up, climbed down Mt. Ellinor in the Olympics)
9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sung a solo
(as a performance, no—but in the shower or walking down the street, all the time)
11. Bungee jumped
(oh, hell no)
12. Visited Paris
(I was 7)
3. Watched lightning at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch
(well, sorta, when I re-learned to knit)
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
(I think slightly, once)
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown my own vegetables
(and given them away)
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
(of course—what kid doesn’t?)
22. Hitchhiked
(once, at Glacier Park in Montana. Friend and I were lost; we got a ride back up to the parking lot with a very nice old couple in an RV.)
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
(yes—but all my sick days now, are real.)
24. Built a snow fort
(once, when we had enough)
25. Held a lamb
(but I have a pic of an honorary nephew holding a chick. He was three. He’s in college now.)
26. Gone skinny dipping
(Girl Scout camp, mid-80s. It’s better in salt water, at night. Phosphorescent critters bounce off of you.)
27. Run a Marathon
(no desire to)
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
(but I’ve seen lunar eclipses)
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
(both, lots!)
31. Hit Kicked a home run
(third grade, kickball. The kid who most vehemently did not want me on his team, was extra mad.)
32. Been on a cruise
(no—but I’ve been canoe camping.)
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person
34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language
(but I got a “teach yourself Arabic” book and played around with the alphabet.)
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
(I paid the bills, which was enough at the time. Money cannot ever make you happy.)
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing
(I’d love to someday)
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
(I think so? I’ve been there, as a young teen.)
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
(but I was with a friend when she gave him a dollar and the rest of her sandwich.)
44. Visited Africa
(really want to)
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance
(but I was back-boarded down a trail and into a motorboat, at camp)
47. Had my portrait painted
(Chalk drawing, actually—I think I was six.)
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
(but a friend told me about eating ice cream in the snow. I want to try that!)
53. Played in the mud
(that’s what kids do.)
54. Gone to a drive-in theater
(Twilight Zone, with my parents, in the rain)
55. Been in a movie
(but I have been in a news clip)
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
(briefly, tai chi from a seminary classmate)
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
(I helped run one)
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
(2nd-8th grades. That’s the only reason I buy them.)
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
(I’ve never been allowed to.)
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
(but I’ve seen tattoos on survivor’s arms)
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten Caviar
(in high school Russian)
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
(Orange Julius, age 18. After two weeks—when I’d made several messes, and burned my hand on the hot dog grill.)
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone
(right pinkie, left middle toe. Separate incidents.)
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book
(if a Young Authors conference in fourth or fifth grade counts. I bound it, and everything.)
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
(just like John?)
84. Had my picture in the newspaper
(school district rag, fourth grade, for winning the district spelling bee and beating all the eighth graders)
85. Read the entire Bible
(not systematically, but I’m fairly sure I’ve read it all.)
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life
(but my doctors saved mine.)
90. Sat on a jury
(was called once, couldn’t serve.)
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one

94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
(but I fell out of a kayak into Lake Michigan)
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
(got it when I moved to CA.)
99. Been stung by a bee
(really! Never.)
100. Ridden an elephant