Saturday, November 29, 2008


I had the wildest, whirlwind conversation I’ve ever had with a stranger (when I wasn’t working), at the downtown Berkeley BART yesterday.

I was on my monthly Kaiser Oakland run, for interferon and a blood test. Refusing to “shop” on Black Friday, I still had Christmas music in my MP3 player. And I felt oddly rested. (The only thing I’d done differently was drink wine with dinner—which I’m not supposed to do.)

So I was out of the house, at least, and in a pretty decent mood. Nothing really over-the-top glorious, though. I got a new BART pass, and went down to the platform. The readerboard said the next train was in six minutes. I sat down to wait.

I hadn’t been there more than ten seconds, when a man walked by, looked in my face, and said hi. Mind you, I was still listening to a choral group sing a bluegrass gospel Christmas song. I said hi back. He kept talking. I took my earbuds out.

He sat at the other end of the bench from me, and told me about being laid off from his truck-driving job three weeks ago. He’d hated the job anyway, and was fine about being laid off; he doesn’t have to “drive past other people’s lives” anymore. He felt like he was getting back into real life, now.

He never asked me for anything but connection. He wasn’t looking for anything but company. He was the happiest out-of-work person I’d ever seen.

He asked what I do.

“I’m a grad student, and a cancer survivor. I’m still on chemotherapy.”
“Oh. Congratulations. That’s a lot. What are you majoring in?”
“God. I’m up at the GTU.”

And, we were off. He told me about losing faith in God, in the late 90’s. Things got “really weird,” and he was seeing chakras, having "Buddha-Mara" experiences. He ran into “this Episcopal priest” who nudged him back toward Christianity. (I resisted the urge to ask who.) Turned out to be Matthew Fox. Then he looked Fox up online, and found something about him not forgiving the pope who silenced him. Enough of that—you can’t preach forgiveness if you don’t do it.

The train came, and we got on. He asked if I’d had spiritual experiences. Well, I haven’t seen chakras, but… I told him about the man who gave me communion at Open Cathedral. It wasn’t a vision, but a human interaction.

He got it. He stared at me for a second, and he looked at me more closely.

“You’ve been through a lot, and still… I can see from your countenance, you’re blessed.”
“Oh, I know I am.”

We pulled up at the Ashby station, and he got off.

And I’m thinking:

Oh, wow.
WHAT was that?
Just enjoy it,

all at once.

Margaret, I thought about you—and I’d have called you right there from the train, if I’d had your number in my phone. (I do now.) But I don’t think I could have spoken coherently. I’m not terribly sure I can now.

He had to work to look at me; I was wearing a sun hat. Which he said had a lot of character (thank you, MaryEllen). I was only wearing the hat because I wasn’t wearing sunblock—I’m still trying to figure out what’s causing my rash. And I had headphones in, for heaven’s sake. I like Chanticleer, but I wasn’t that blissed out—I was on my way to get the stuff that makes me sick. I was out just doing a chore.

Still. God tossed a human pry-bar at me, and there we were. This happy-go-lucky, out-of-work truck driver, spiritual seeker, incredibly bouncy character, reminded me again how blessed I am. By looking in my face and seeing it.

I had to go to the hospital for my blood test; the Fabiola lab was closed. I said to the tech, “I should tell you that I’m on interferon, and I’m hard to stick. They had to use my hand the last two times. I hate that.”

She gave me one of the easiest pokes I’ve ever had. In my arm, in the usual place. I bled just beautifully. And when I got home, my numbers were still fine.

People kept smiling at me, all day. It was weird, in a good way. I didn’t feel like I was glowing. But something was going on.

I took BART back to Berkeley, and started walking up the hill. By then, I was tired, and had to stop a lot. My backpack held five boxes of interferon (they gave me an extra week, to get me through Christmas), a heavy icepack from the pharmacy because I’d forgotten to freeze mine, and my mostly-full sharps box, which they couldn’t take. It didn’t really weigh all that much—but walking with it wore me down.

I remembered something from an Annie Dillard book I read in college; I think it’s in Teaching a Stone to Talk. She buys the communion wine for her church, and writes about walking all over that small town with the blood of Christ in her backpack.

I’ve always loved that. And it’s no doubt weird to make myself sick to keep myself well—but there I was also, carrying what medical science gives me for healing.

I would have never known that man’s story, if he hadn’t been bursting to tell it. If you look at me, I’m any random student who dresses like a mountain climber, walks slow, and stops a lot. You don’t know what’s inside my backpack, or what’s inside my soul. We only know each other, if we take out our earphones and talk. In the space between us, there is God.

If that kind of random, intense connection happened every day, I’d stop leaving my bedroom. I don’t have the energy to live like that full-time. But this was a gift.

Thank you, man in the BART station. Thank you, MaryEllen. Thank you, competent lab tech. Thank you, Annie Dillard. Thank you Craig, the teacher who introduced me to her work, who drowned in Costa Rica seven years ago.

And thank you God, for all of it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


First, last, and always, for life.

For the health I have—and for that which I will recover. For friends, teachers, and mentors who have walked with me through the past seven months—and for those who knew me only before. For old friends I'm back in touch with. For community: school, church, online, on the street. For A., and for her cats. For Max (who does not have TB). For good medical care. For everything that cancer has given and taught me. For realizing only recently that I’m shedding not only my heroes, but the need for them—and that is as it should be. For Bernice Johnson Reagon’s voice. For my own. For work that I love and can do, which keeps me connected to God and the world beyond myself. For the way my legs feel when I come in from walking in the city half the night. For friendly, forgiving drag queens. (How could I have forgotten meeting someone named Ruby Slippers?) For the man in a hospital bracelet who gave me communion—and for the one who threw my demons in my face just by existing. For the grace everyone gives me, to be where I am. For laughter, joy, and normal conversations.

For food, and shelter, and friends who share. For love all around me, and for the grace to see it. And once again, for life.

Need to get in touch with your own strength?

Try this.

I started with Jane's Miriam Makeba posts, and ended up at Bernice Johnson Reagon (via a search for Sweet Honey). I said below that I've essentially lost my heroes. I'm not sure that's true.

Can you feel where she sings from?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Post-nuclear life

I’m really out of sorts right now, and don’t know if what words come out will be worth posting. I have to be civil in roughly three hours (10 pm—2 am), and I’m really writing this for therapy. I’ll post it if I think it might be good for other people.

My brain feels like confetti. I talked with one of my faculty today, who’s at least as much my friend as anyone will ever again be my teacher. (More on that in a minute.) She gets it—but I don’t know if I was clear at all, and I’m still chewing on what I was trying to say.

The title of this post refers to life post-cancer diagnosis. I’m really not post-nuclear yet, as I realized while I was talking. I’m still living in the middle of this. I’ll be post-explosion when I’m done with my shots. (I’m throwing an eviction party for the gnats in my brain, sometime shortly after the last Friday in June. If you can commute to the Bay Area and you like sushi, write me.) I am post-initial shock. I don’t resist the things I need to do to take care of myself, forever (hats and sunblock) or just for now (lots of sleep). I touch my biopsy scar, and I know how incredibly lucky I am to be alive and as well as I am. I tell the story, and I use it well—at the same time, I don’t have to talk about it. I don’t really think about it all 24/7.

But I have this new mystery rash. It’s on the backs of both hands, over both wrists, and all over the top of my right forearm. My face and neck are clear, so I don’t immediately think I’m reacting to my sunblock. My oncologist’s e-mail suggested it could be drug-related photosensitivity—but I haven’t been in the sun, unprotected. He hasn’t seen it (and my derm’s out of town), and you can’t diagnose a rash over e-mail. I’m wondering if it’s a new reaction to the interferon.

I don’t know yet, and my next dermatology/oncology appointments are New Year’s Eve and mid-January, respectively. In the meantime, hydrocortisone seems to help. (If I really felt emergent, I’d go in.) The itch isn’t driving me crazy.

It’s just one more thing. I don’t know where the rash is coming from. I can’t control whether, or where, or how fast it spreads. And if it is interferon-related, that’s not going to change what I do. I have seven more months of self-injections. I’m going to finish them. I don’t want to wonder what I could have put up with. I don’t ever want to have to deal with cancer again.

God willing and I get everything done, I’m graduating in May. I’m going (back) out into the world. Away from the circle of witnesses who saw me get cancer. Away from most of the people who have supported me through it. I can’t leave my ear, and my scar, here. They will never be just a part of “what happened in grad school.” They are with me forever, along with everything they teach me.

I said above, one of my faculty is my friend more than “anyone will ever again be my teacher.” I’m drawn to her, and respect her, because she has a fearless honesty that I think keeps her safe—and I know liberates the rest of us. She’s solid. But I can’t watch her and do what she does. Authenticity only comes from yourself. If I can’t drag something out of me, I’ll never find it.

I have been where my teachers couldn’t take me. My advisor told me at least twice last spring, that I was teaching the community by my example. I knew what she meant, and I tried to do it well. She also asked me, what God was doing with me. I had no idea. Seven months later, I think I do. Having cancer cured me of all kinds of just ridiculousness. I have so much less fear than I ever did. I don’t worry at all about what other people think of me. I can accept the love I’m given. I don’t feel solid in the sense that I see in a few of my friends—but I know I’m on my way there.

I just don’t have images, or models. I have mentors, teachers, friends—but they can’t take me where I need to go. I’m the only one who can do that.

I knew when I was diagnosed with cancer in the seminary fishbowl, no one was going to teach me how to do this. They couldn’t. You can’t, unless you’ve lived it. Unless you’ve been to the post-nuclear place yourself, and survived with your soul intact, all you can do is offer your love. (In the same sense, I couldn’t take anybody through foreclosure, or another shattering experience I haven’t had. I know what it’s like to be shaken—but not all tremors are the same.)

I can’t say, I want this quality or that one. I can’t look at other people and copy what they do. It just doesn’t compute, anymore. It may have something to do with having had (not really willingly) the responsibility of teaching my community what it was and is like to live through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. It’s definitely connected to going to a place where I had, and have, no teachers.

I want that solidity. I want that fearless honesty. The only person who can show me how, is me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oncology update

Bloodwork still "excellent." (Last test was Halloween.) Fatigue and achiness neither worse nor better; ibuprofen and sleep, respectively, still recommended. Yes, I'm nauseous, but I barely notice that unless I'm more exhausted than usual. Hair will do whatever it wants; I think that's slowing down. I asked about my lack of concentration (read: breeding gnats where my brain used to be). They've seen it before with interferon. So that's a known side effect, and I can't sleep it off. (I'd been blaming the fatigue.)

He asked "what's on your list of questions;" I told him I never quite got how interferon worked. He told me point-blank they don't know. Boosting my immune response can have some effect on cancer cells if I still have any.

Five months down; seven to go. I'll see him again in January.

Monday, November 17, 2008

God says, ha!

I'm in the commuter lounge at school, re-reading a field ed journal posting and looking at my instructor's feedback (just e-mailed to me). At the same time, I'm chatting on Facebook with a friend about melanoma, interferon, and research.

The field ed assignment was about how wounds and scars transform our ministry. I read my own writing: "I'm past my medical crisis." Flip windows to Facebook, where my friend has written: "The studies I've read... show a 10-15% decreased risk of re-occurrence in people who take interferon."

And I'm sitting here barely breathing. She's a kind person. She meant to be reassuring. But the numbers still freeze me.

Truly, I can never be as afraid again, as I was between April and mid-summer. I know rationally, I survived and I am surviving and I will survive. I have no control over whether the cancer comes back, despite the treatment. I was mortally afraid, and I made it through. I know that nothing can ever defeat me again. I am stronger than I ever had imagined. God and community have always been with me.

But can I still be blindsided by a number? Hell yes. I'm "past my medical crisis" in the sense that I survived the tumor, and am surviving the treatment. In some ways, I am more whole than I've ever been. But I am not healed, truly. I have more work to do.

In that flash of fear, though, I know I love this life.

To Paul: thank you for comments below.

To Margaret: If I only had pictures! I'll send you some of Dymphna when they arrive. Suffice it to say for now: my rector was Sister Heada Lettuce. :-)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Short hiatus

I know, I haven't been posting regularly anyway. But I finally took my computer to the shop--rendering me (lap)topless until Friday. I may post short notes from the library (like right now), but I don't really have the environment to do anything reflective.

Other than the papers I have to get on top of. But the good news is, the shop people think they can fix it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What I did on Wednesday

I went to my first ever, real, not-a-church-fundraiser, drag show. In the Tenderloin. For school credit.

I love my field ed. :-)

Oh, and I should mention that I'm waitressing at my church's drag show tonight. It's a fundraiser for our after-school program.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The salt of the earth

Our wireless is wonky. My laptop crashed. And I preached this morning. Here it is.

All Saints' Chapel, CDSP
Matthew 5:13-18

“You are the salt of the earth.”
I grew up hearing that expression.
I remember my mom and my grandma saying
that this or that person was the salt of the earth.
I knew it was a vaguely good thing to be,
but I got stuck on the literal language.
I never quite got what it meant.

I went looking, and I found these references:

--an online Catholic social justice magazine
--a movie made in 1954 about a miners' strike,
for which the writers, director, and producers were all blacklisted
--a song from a Rolling Stones album
--a documentary about Palestinian Christians, made in 2004.

And, of course, the biblical reference.
I found information about the way salt was used
in the ancient Middle East,
both as a purifier and a preservative.
I thought about how salt is both a necessary and an everyday thing.
Touch your finger to your tongue.
Taste your tears.

Our bodies carry the same salinity as the ocean.
That is how basic salt is,
to the life of the planet
and to us.

The expression, when it refers to people,
can mean a few different things.
Salt of the earth is the finest kind of human being:
strong, dedicated, honest, hard-working, committed to justice.
Someone who uses their capabilities to make the world better.
It can refer to a humble and unpretentious person.
Or my favorite, and I confess I got it from Wikipedia:
Any person of interesting character, usually of the lower class.

Today we celebrate the feast day of Pope Leo I,
also known as Leo the Great.
The last definition I just read, does not apply to him.

We don't know much about Leo before he became Pope.
He was born about the year 400.
One tradition says he was born in Tuscany.

We do know that the Western Roman Empire was a mess.
It was beset by invasions.
The economic and political system was totally inefficient.
Still, Leo managed to grow up and get a good education.
He was ordained deacon,
and was responsible for looking after Church possessions,
managing the grain dole,
and for generally administering finances.

Again, this is not an ordinary person.
He did well enough to be unanimously elected Pope in the year 440.
He is known for his work to consolidate the Western church
under his own authority as the Bishop of Rome.
In Africa, Spain, and Gaul, he limited the powers of one bishop,
confirmed the rights of another,
and selected candidates for holy orders.

He also negotiated with Attila
when the Huns were about to sack Rome.
He persuaded them to withdraw from Italy.
His negotiations with the Vandals were less successful,
but he did manage to save the lives of the people of Rome.

Leo was a writer.
We have 143 letters and 96 sermons written by him.
They cover many doctrinal points, and the entire church year.
His work was all about purifying the church, doctrinally,
and preserving it against attackers.
He was a clearly powerful person,
both spiritually and temporally—
though I'm not sure I'd call him a diplomat.
He was smart, strong, capable,
and forceful enough to consolidate power under himself,
and to save his people on at least one occasion.

Leo is best known to us for his influence
at the Council of Chalcedon.
The council was called in the year 451, to deal with the heresy
that after the Incarnation there was only one nature in Christ,
and that nature was not consubstantial with us.

Leo's answer was a letter to the patriarch of Constantinople.
It became incorporated into the Council's definition of the faith.
I'm going to read you his core assertion.
Forgive me; it's a little long:

For not only is God believed to be both Almighty and the Father, but the Son is shown to be co-eternal with Him, differing in nothing from the Father because He is God from God, Almighty from Almighty, and being born from the Eternal one is co-eternal with Him; not later in point of time, not lower in power, not unlike in glory, not divided in essence: but at the same time the only begotten of the eternal Father was born eternal of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

Without detriment therefore to the properties of either nature and substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt belonging to our condition inviolable nature was united with possible nature, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and not die with the other. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours.

Okay. I can't stand here and pretend
that it was easy for me to understand what I just read.
How about you?
Is it easy for you to relate to someone
who uses that kind of language?
Can you wrap your mind around that sentence structure,
let alone the vocabulary?
To me, it may as well have been in the original Latin.

I used to be quick like that.
Like Leo, I have lived by words.
I read for fun,
and I still attempt to write for sanity.
Now, words just circle around me.
I make occasional grabs at them as they float by.

We call it chemo-brain.
Most of you know that I was diagnosed last spring
with a Stage II melanoma.
It's potentially a very serious skin cancer.
We caught it before it spread.
I had surgery which may well have cured me.
But the secondary treatment is a year of interferon therapy,
to kill anything that may have been left
and to keep it from coming back.
I started with a month's worth of IV infusions over the summer,
and I inject myself three times a week now.
I'll be done at the end of June.
I'll get my body and my brain back then.
The worst side effect is fatigue.
I’ve been so exhausted for so long,
that I don’t have the concentration to comprehend what I read.
I look fine,
and I hear that many times a day.
But I feel run down and beaten up,
and I usually have a headache.
I don't have the endurance it takes to study like I used to.

If I didn’t already know Leo's point:
that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine,
because that is what redemption requires,
I wouldn't even try to understand him.
I need the reality of God shown to me in less intellectual ways.
I need my Incarnation a little more obvious.
Right now, I need my God with skin on.

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the finest kind of human being.
You are utterly common.

I'm doing my field ed at the San Francisco Night Ministry.
The daytime component of that is what we call Open Cathedral.
We do Eucharist outside,
in downtown San Francisco,
every Sunday afternoon at 2.
It's specifically intended to be church
where people who live on the street can feel welcome.
Anyone can come. (That includes all of you.)
And anything can happen.

If you're on Muni or BART, you get off at the Civic Center station.
Walk through the farmer's market, go behind the fountain,
and you'll find us.
We don't always start on time.

So that's where I was, a week and a day ago.
The service had started.
It was a cool, damp, sunny, busy downtown Sunday afternoon.
The last couple of times,
I've been in charge of welcoming people as they wander by,
looking curious.
You don't often see people doing church outside.
I looked out and saw a man walking toward us.
I don't know how old he was;
I'd guess about 50 but I'm often wrong.
Living outside can age you pretty quickly.
His clothes were rumpled.
He was shorter than I am.
At first glance, he looked like he'd had a difficult life.

He stopped just outside our circle.
I walked around, and said hi,
softly as I didn't want to scare him.

He wore a hospital bracelet,
and he dragged a suitcase on wheels behind him.
In his other hand, he held a basket of grapes from the farmers' market.
Just like this one.
And without speaking, he held it out to me.

[hand basket of grapes to lector]

The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

I responded as one of the nine lepers.
I took a grape, and ate it.
And I didn't realize that he had just given me the Eucharist,
until he had walked away
and it was too late to thank him.

But I give thanks for him now.
I don’t know his story.
I don't know his name.
Clearly he’d just been sprung from an overnight hospital stay—
but I don’t know where or why.
I don’t know if anybody visited him.
I don’t know where he was going,
or what awaited him there.

I give thanks for him, and for Leo,
for saints both in history and walking on the street.
I give thanks for those who did the intellectual work
of hacking out the relationships
between who God is and who we are.
I give thanks for people who can articulate their faith
in ways that I can't.
(If I ever could.)
And I give thanks for those who speak with open hands,
and a basket of grapes.
Who would never show up in a well-dressed church,
but whose response to grace is to share what they have.
Who may never speak a word about what they believe,
but who simply and quietly live it out.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

No sicker than usual

…but my wireless is. Our wireless at school could be out for two weeks. (I’m at a coffee shop now, before I head into the city for an all-day training.) So, please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me. If anything comes up that should be worried about, I’ll let someone know.

Had a blood test yesterday, in honor of Halloween. My numbers are great; my liver’s elevated, but not enough to alarm my doctor. Also got a flu shot, so now my arm hurts. Other than that, nothing more than the usual fatigue.

There are other things I’m thinking about and would like to post, but I don’t have time right now. Peace to all.