Saturday, February 28, 2009

Working on mindfulness

I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, Lenten practice-wise. I’m trying to figure out which of these really matter, and keep in touch with the point of doing them. I’m also trying to remember, to be kind to myself in the process.

Yesterday before chapel, I went to the admin building to pick up an Episcopal Relief and Development meditation booklet and “hope chest.” I didn’t grow up with mite boxes, so I’m having to figure out how to use it as I go. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There I was, at the foot of the stairs in Shires, just about to go up to the Dean of Students’ office and get this stuff. I bumped into a friend, an administrator for the School for Deacons. I really like her, and she’s easy to connect with. We hadn’t caught up in awhile. I think my first thought was, “Yay! I get to talk with Rebecca.”

We hug hello, and we’re standing there, talking. She’s telling me about her computer system, and stuff that she’s struggling with. I’m there with her. And then—I’m not. I checked out, in the middle of this conversation, with someone I really like spending time with, who is frustrated (not at me) and who needs to be heard. I was emotionally present with my own stuff, more than I was with her.

I caught it, brought myself back. Thinking, “Oh. Mindfulness. This is what that’s for.”

And I know, that this exactly is what I’m working on. Being present, with my heart. Listening to the people whom I’m with. Being aware of where God is. Staying grounded. And doing what I need to do, when I need to do it.

Later, I put the ERD box together. I was thinking of Rebecca, and I put something inside. It felt right; keeping myself on track, being accountable. Not just sorrow (and I really wasn’t beating myself up with guilt), but genuine repentance. “I see this tendency; I know what to work on, and I am.”

I went to lunch, and on with my day. Everything was fine.

I was sitting with some friends, the admissions director, and a prospective student. (Margaret: it was Suzanne from Good Shepherd.) We're having a perfectly normal conversation, under the circumstances. A friend of one of these friends stops by. They hug, she sits down. And something about this person, makes me want to get to know her.

We get talking. She’s a dancer, and she’s recently had a hip replacement. We both spend more time at Kaiser than we’d like. I tell her, I’m a cancer survivor and I’m still in treatment. And we’re off, talking about the journeys that our bodies and our hearts have been on.

It’s a fascinating conversation; I’m there, and I want to be. We’re talking about what we’ve learned, what we’re working on, listening to ourselves, how to accept help, being safe. The fact that you never know what’s ahead of you.

We’re both tuned in, really enjoying it. And then I hear her say, “…and I’ll let you leave.” I realize how long we’ve been talking. And, how tired I am.

I’ve been needing to read for school. I’d been planning to, all day. And I was so exhausted after that, all I wanted was sleep. So I did a couple of on-campus errands, one that I was a week late on, and took a nap instead. I woke up, groggy, before dinner, and was pretty much toast until I went to bed.

I could say something clever here, about karma. But that was a gentle bite.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I came into seminary with, and how I’m leaving. I feel right now, like a jellyfish in a river full of salmon. I’m in the wrong body of water, to begin with—I should have taken this year off, but I had to stay for my health insurance. And, I’m watching my friends get job offers, while I myself get congratulated for looking alive.

I know, though, that I’ve been out of step here since my second year, when I went three-quarters time. And I knew that I would be, within my first semester—when I understood that I’d need an extra year to grow into what God was doing with me, and started thinking about internships. I really was always on the four-year plan. I just hadn’t known I’d be surviving cancer, for the last year of it.

I transferred dioceses when I came here, so I’ve always been behind in the process. And I put it on pause when I got diagnosed. I’m doing this at the pace I need to do it. I know that, and I’m okay with it. It’s just hard to watch my friends move faster.

The grace, though, in that early wisdom about needing more time: I found out, four weeks before my entering class graduated, that I’d need an extra year of health insurance. I have had the care I needed.

I came here in fall 2005, fresh from an abusive situation in my former parish. I don’t need to say what that was, or where. And I truly did come here because it was all that my heart wanted to do. I knew that transferring parishes, and going through the process in the usual way, was an option. And I knew that God was saying to me, “Go.”

But I came here with behavior patterns that you’d see in an abuse survivor. I was caught in a debilitating shame cycle, and I hid from people who could have (and would have willingly) helped me. I was afraid of people in power, and of their judgements about me. Even as I started healing from that, trusting myself more, and coming to trust the intentions of the people around me, I preferred to keep my shortcomings to myself. Wherein, I would beat myself up over them.

Then I was diagnosed with cancer. I called my best friend, crying on the phone. I called my priest. The next thing I did was e-mail my teachers. I had projects due Monday; this was Friday afternoon.

They’ve been in my back pocket ever since. I opened up, first because I had to and then because I wanted to. We all walked me through this. The cancer was on my skin; deeper things healed, beneath it.

And now, I’m closing some circles. I met with my advisor the other day. While she was looking for a document in my file, I saw my middler review. My eye rested on the word, “deadlines.”

I turned in a project a month ago, that was nine months late. I’m not going to be punished for it. (My teacher congratulated me for turning it in.) I still have a video to do, from last spring. It will be accepted. When I was well, I was in trouble all the time for late work. I frustrated the hell out of my teachers, because they knew what I was capable of. I honestly didn’t realize, what a big deal that was. My friends were as scattered, behind, and flaky as I. Those who weren’t, intimidated me.

Ever since last April, none of that has mattered. My teachers have been focused on helping me get through this, any way I can. The rules and the expectations are different. I’m living up to them as well as I can. And I want to, both for my own sense of self and because I know these people, as human beings. They’ve been to a dark place, with me.

I have a friend who almost hurts me to be around, because he reminds me so much of the way I was when I was well. He’s getting in trouble in the same areas I did, because he puts off his schoolwork in favor of all the things he loves and would rather do. He’s always running around with his head cut off, and always frustrated with himself. He knows he’s making bad choices, and he keeps making them.

I told him, “I know where you are. And what cured me of that, was cancer. I went where my body and soul took me. I don’t want you to have to go where I’ve been.” But I know, I’ve done that work for me. I can’t do it for him.

People don’t change because they want to. One of my teachers said, in a workshop recently, “No one changes for a hobby.” You do it because you have to. You go to the depths of your darkness, because you have no choice. You walk out, truly alive.

And I’m wondering now, am I really healed? I have faced the hardest thing that I've ever had to go through. I know now, what courage is. I do things all the time, that would have paralyzed me a year ago. I challenge myself just to see if I'm still scared of this or that. I know how to choose to be brave.

I know that I’m a visibly different person; my advisor told me that. I know, that I know what is really important. But can I hold myself to it? Can I consistently do it? Can I stay present, not only with my intention but in the following-through? Can I make commitments I can keep, and find joy in the work of keeping them? Can I get my work done, less because people I respect are counting on me, but because I respect myself, and I’m the kind of person who does it?

Can I be responsible to the changes I’ve been through, both while I’m still here and when I’m out in the world? I can’t imagine forgetting now, how precious life is. But will I remember, who I am and want to be?

I don’t know. But with everything in me, I want to.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Prayer, power, progress...

First, what was apparently my Ash Wednesday penance:

I did my monthly Kaiser run, for blood test and interferon. Blood draw was no big deal at all; it was an easy poke. (I seem to have better luck, if I warn them that I’m difficult.) But then I was stuck at the pharmacy for an hour. They had my meds—I could see them, from the waiting area—but the boxes were mislabeled, so they wouldn't release them to me. They had to wait for my oncologist to call them back.

They've been mislabeled for months. It's never been an issue. The last time anyone even mentioned it to me, it was to say, “You know what to do really, right?” I did.

I told them that I knew not to inject myself three times a day! (And if I did, I’d never get out of bed.) It’s three times a week; I’ve been doing this for seven months. I know the routine. Alas.

Met with my advisor yesterday; we checked off my cross-cultural requirement, and confirmed that I actually do get to graduate. (I’d come up in conversation in Wednesday’s faculty meeting. There was a question about a missing class, that she didn’t have a record of, and I’d forgotten I’d taken. The registrar found it.) I’d printed off my blog posts about New Orleans. I read snatches of them, and told her stories. She told me that she hopes I keep writing.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been feeling better for awhile. Physically, I still have the effects. Spiritually, I’m in a much lighter place. It’s hard to really describe—but I can carry the treatment more easily. I’m still achy and tired, but it’s much more bearable. I’m well past the halfway point; yesterday marked four months to the end of this.

That, and it’s spring, and the light’s coming back. For whatever reason, I’m feeling stronger.

There’s a core of about four faculty members, who have been in my back pocket since the day they found out I was diagnosed. (One, the day my doctor called me.) Two whom I was working with then, my advisor, and my field ed prof—who was on sabbatical last spring, but wrote me as soon as she heard. They made exceptions for me right and left, and told me they were there for me, and praying for me. They made sure I knew I could go to them.

I’m close to my advisor, and the field ed professor. Less so with the academic dean and Christian Ed professor—but they know me well, and they knew me before I had cancer. I’ve shared this journey with them, and I know that they are there. I know they support me, and they want the best for me. In that, I absolutely trust them.

I was talking with these two, after Eucharist and before dinner, confirming that I actually do get to graduate, and explaining what the mix-up was. I said, “Last spring was kind of a blur.” The academic dean rolled her eyes, answered, “Yeah. But you don’t seem blurred right now.”

I realized she was right. I was more clear-headed than I’d been since I was well.

“I’m not. Four months. I know I can do it.”

Neither had to say a word to me. Their eyes, spoke volumes.

I’m angry with the body of the faculty, for a decision they made that affects one of their colleagues, whom I dearly love. I shouldn’t say anything more about it. But when I talk to my friends about this, I’ll say, “These people (who support me) are these people (who made this choice).” I gesture with my hands, holding one on one side, one on the other. I’ll usually shrug and say, “I don’t get it.”

Last night, I had one of these exchanges. And I brought my hands together. Before my head realized it, my body was praying—for all of them.

That, also, is progress.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Preparing for Lent

I love Lent. I didn’t realize I did, but I do. And we’re not even quite there yet.

I need this quiet time. I need to focus, with as much clear-heartedness as I can, on God and what roots me. I’m going back to my mindfulness post of two days ago—that’s where I need to go digging.

It’s not about punishment, penance, guilt, giving something up for the sake of depriving yourself. It’s about stripping everything down, so that you are holding nothing between yourself and God. (Taking off the fig leaves, if you will.) It’s about remembering who we are, who God is. It’s about knowing that we hunger for nothing, more than the bread of life.

When I was a kid, I gave up chocolate. But I didn’t know what I was talking about. Later, I took on a practice, instead—usually a prayer journal. This blog has, in its own way, become that.

Fasting from excess would be a great idea—but I don’t know that I have any, right now. I still don’t eat much; I almost never even want things like desserts. My body is still laying low, still tired to the bone. I don’t overspend. The only thing I really waste time on is the internet. It’s tricky, because there is community there, and I value interacting with my friends. But I need to recognize when I’m actively engaging, and when I’m clicking “refresh” on Crackbook status updates just because I’m bored.

What I’m really after is mindfulness. Being alive to the life all around me. Being present to the people and things that speak to me, touch me, ask for my attention. Living with an open heart.

I’m already on the edges of this, and I really want to grasp it.

I can see the thought process going, “You can’t go online now; it’s the middle of the day. Go talk to somebody, instead.” So the only thing to do there, is specifically delineate the time. I’m already wanting to.

There’s something also appealing, about fasting from something that I need. Jesus went to the desert for 40 days. Obviously, I can’t not eat or drink for six weeks. I need to support my body's healing. I need to drink enough water; I need to eat healthy food. I need to wear adequate clothing when I go outside.

[Fast from shooting myself… oh, don’t tempt me.]

If I had a waterproof stopwatch, I'd take it into the shower. God knows I use too much water. But that's a grey area too, because the hot water on my skin soothes my aches, and helps me. When I was well, I could bounce in and out. Now I turn it on, climb in, and melt against the wall until I'm together enough to wash.

I don’t know exactly what it would mean, to fast from a necessary thing. But the idea just popped into my head, of spending one day a week in the Tenderloin, or the Haight, or the Mission. Not necessarily finding a place to volunteer, although it could grow into that. But just being there, doing my own little “street retreat,” watching and listening, talking to people when they talk to me. Seeing how to live, and find joy, with less than the basics. Finding out, from them, what is real.

I really want to do both of these things—restrict my online time, and go live in the world. This is the kind of Lent that makes sense to me. It’s all about exploring.

I’m also thinking about structuring prayer. I notice myself praying, when I write these. Or when I’m in chapel, or church, when people are singing and the music washes through me. Or when I light a candle for a friend. I don’t set aside time, to sit and talk with God. It comes in the course of life. I wonder what would happen, if I consciously held that door open more?

Jane, your book came the other day. Reading that could be a practice, too.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What is real, and what is not

I had a day full of conversations on Thursday, that I’m still thinking about.

I had back-to-back meetings with two faculty; my advisor, and my field ed professor, with whom I’m doing a reading course. I was a little bit nervous, for a number of reasons. But they were both good talks, honest and real, and life-giving.

My advisor opened her door and her heart to me (more than it had been already) when I got diagnosed with cancer, ten months ago. I lost track of the times I’d walk by her office; she’d ask how I was doing, and put her work aside for half an hour (or more) to listen to me. We hadn’t had much chance to talk in awhile. Academically I hadn’t really needed to, beyond “how are we going to get you graduated?” That’s where we started Thursday. We got to catch up, to meet each other again as human beings. I got to tell her how much I appreciate her—which isn’t something that’s heard enough, around here.

We hugged goodbye, and I went directly to my other teacher’s office. She’s also a friend. We did what we always do: range over any number of topics, and ultimately get done with whatever we needed. I’m reading Viktor Frankl; we talked about how the crucible of the camps made him as transcendent as he was, and what cancer did for/in/with me. I can’t remember what she asked me; my eyes got big when I heard myself answer, “You live in now.”

I knew enough, to put a mental post-it next to that.

I love these people. Deeply. And I know they love me. I know it, because they take the time to see me. That also comes from Frankl—you can’t see someone for who they are, unless you love them. It jumped out at me as I was reading, and I think it’s true.

That’s another gift cancer gave me. I say that “having cancer cured me of an awful lot of crap.” I used to be so freaking fearful, of everything. Insecure, full of self-doubt, never trusting the ground beneath me. Raw and fragile. Cancer exploded all of that. If it’s real, live in it. If it isn’t, let it go. And what became real, was love.

I saw that I loved my own life. I panicked at the thought of losing it; I was willing to fight for it. And by the grace of God, I knew that I could learn from this if I was open to the experience. (I remember when that realization happened—I was walking through Cal on the way to BART, one day that first week.)

And I could feel my community—in all of its forms—lifting me up. Survivors came out of the woodwork, to have random conversations with me in the CDSP parking lot. Friends offered me rides to Kaiser, baths when I couldn’t shower, ice cream (on a cold and windy April day), and time. I never had to hear medical news alone. My teachers sprung me from deadlines, with e-mails full of prayers. I heard from all kinds of people, that they loved me and were praying for me. Lizette kept her door open. Blog-friends surrounded me. My best friend made room for me all summer, so I’d have a safe place to be feverish and miserable in.

Somehow, by the grace of all that is holy, all of that soaked through. I shed the skin I didn’t need anymore, the insecurities I had already begun to learn were false. I learned how to trust myself, my God, the hearts of my friends. I knew I could choose to live through cancer, and treatment, well. It is still a conscious choice. There are days I do it right, and days I don’t. But I knew early on, how I do this is mine. Who I become, is mine. It has always been.

I had to fear something truly terrifying, to get the perspective I needed to lose the fake weaknesses, the wounds and the learned behaviors that weren’t helping me. And I had to walk through it, internally aware and surrounded by love.

This is my resurrection life.

You thought I was done with the conversations. Thursday night, after Eucharist and before dinner, a friend split a beer with me and we talked, standing against the wall, eating goldfish crackers. He’s freshly from Scotland; his wife is a year behind me here. And he told me about a time, several months over two years of his life, when he walked hither and yon around his home country. He set out in the mornings, knowing what town he might be headed toward, but open to what he might see. Just for the experience of doing it. He never knew where he might sleep, but he always found a place.

One morning at breakfast, a man greeted him, trying to strike up a conversation. He was too rushed to reply. He was focused on going; he took for granted that there’d be more people to talk with.

That was the only soul he saw, all day.

He learned about living in the now. And he knew, telling me this story, that my own road had taken me to the same mountain.

I forget it, all the time. When I’m achy and sore and don’t want to look people in the eye; when I spend too much time on Crackbook. You know the expression, “he didn’t give me the time of day.” Often, I don’t give the moment, who I am.

But there are times when I do. And I remember. This learning is in me. The wrestling is less intense, though I’m still in the mosh pit with God. I shifted, when I crossed the halfway point of my treatment. I can see the day, four months from now, when I will stop injecting myself with life-preserving poison. I look forward to letting cancer be a part of my past. I certainly know that I won’t think about it all the time, when I have my body, brain, and energy back.

But I think, and hope, and pray that I will keep what it taught me.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Thoughts about power and choice

I had a flu-bug about a week ago. Not the real flu; it wasn’t bad enough. But fever for a couple of days, and coughing. I got over it quickly, but didn’t get my energy back until late in the week. And I still haven’t felt like blogging. I’m just doing this so you all know I’m all right.

Open Cathedral yesterday was amazing. It was cold, and pouring buckets on us. It answered the question for me, “Do you really want to do this, when it’s miserable out?” Yes. I was putting sandwiches and cookies on paper plates, afterwards, and could barely move my hands. But the community really started to happen. People shared umbrellas… it was gorgeous.

I had meant, for several days, to write about power and choice. And then I bore witness to a decision, not yet public, that I deeply (and angrily) disagree with. I can’t go there yet, on this blog. But it fuels my thinking about responsibility to others.

I went to part of a “diversity day” at school, the week before I got sick. We had a large-group presentation, then we split into small groups (of about eight people). We were assigned to discuss words: culture, anti-racism, and another I’ve forgotten. We talked about exposure to things beyond our previous experience. Someone brought up the metaphor of hatching: you think the world is your little egg, and you find out suddenly it’s bigger.

Someone else said something about cracking your own egg. I asked about it; I was apparently the only one who didn’t get this. People jumped in with examples of what they’d done: move far away for college, that sort of thing. They said, surely you’ve expanded your own horizons?

I still don’t really agree. I’ve chosen things that have challenged me, on purpose because I wanted or needed the growth. But the cancer diagnosis broke the hell out of any egg I was ever nestled in. I’ve done what I’ve done, with the pieces. I’m mostly proud of the person I’m becoming. But I had no control over the hammer.

I think of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that stormed my elementary school in fifth grade. You really never can, choose your own adventure. You can buy a ticket to somewhere—but you don’t know what will happen to you there, or who you’re going to be.

It’s not what causes your hatching. It’s what you do with who you are, when you see the world around you.

So that was a Wednesday. Thursday was Community Night; the guest preacher at our Eucharist was an alum, and an acquaintance of mine from here and there. He’s rector of a parish somewhere in Marin. And he preached about how the recession is affecting his community here and his family, globally. And how it’s a crucifixion for all of us, and what that means—or could mean—for who we are as a culture. It was all about courage.

I sat there, very mindful of my own medical “crucifixion,” and wondered how in hell I’m supposed to do anything at all about the economy. I’m graduating with debt. I live in a dorm room—I don’t even have space to share. And I thought more deeply about the whole power/choice dynamic. I actively, more-or-less willingly, make myself sick. I’ll be doing it for four more months. There’s so much I can’t do, because I do this. I do it because I have access to medical treatment. And because I don’t want to get cancer again.

I didn’t choose the illness. I do choose the treatment. That’s where the crucifixion analogy stops for me. The people who are really being crucified aren’t the bankers. I don’t have sympathy for people who can’t figure out how to survive on $500,000 a year (per recent NYT op-ed article). Those who are really suffering, are the people who can’t find even a minimum-wage job in this economy. Someone told me about (I think it was) her husband, meeting people in a shelter, on a trip to New York. One of the residents asked him, “Do you know the difference between you and me?” He answered, “No.” The man said to him, “Three paychecks.”

Three paychecks, between having a safe, warm, dry home and living on the street. Jesus.

And do not start me on health care.

Anyway: Jesus chose his crucifixion. He knew what the risks were, and he took them. He knew what he was doing.

I know what I’m doing, injecting myself with interferon. And I know that I will survive. I’ll come out of this different, but I will in many ways be healed. I didn’t choose the illness—I do choose the cure. I’ve said before, that having cancer cured me of a lot of crap. (And do I need to say that I’m aware that my sacrifice is for myself, only?)

As far as the economy goes, the level of “choice” is different. I don’t know how my choices broke the banks; I’ve never owned anything as monumental as a house. But the choice in front of all of us now, is how we’re going to live when we have to alter our circumstances. The most humane thing we possibly could do, now or ever, is share what we have. I don’t have a spare couch. I do have food.

I’m caught on Richard’s crucifixion metaphor, because the element of choice for Jesus was so much greater than what I see on the street. It doesn’t really matter who’s up there (here?), and you don’t get down, without dying. It matters, what we say and what we teach and what we do. How you live matters, even when you’re stretched on the instrument which you believe will kill you. That’s the only way to survive.

We talked briefly, afterward; he knows what I’m going through medically, and I was beginning to sort through these thoughts. He mentioned that some of his parishioners in Marin—remember, uber-wealthy—have “lost everything.”

I had to interrupt him, and he understood. You only lose everything, when you lose your life.

One of my friends from Open Cathedral gave someone the extra bag of sandwiches, so he could take them back and share them with the people where he sleeps. Remember, this was a cold, blustery, soaked-to-the-skin afternoon. The man said he was okay with sleeping in the doorway at the Y, because others need shelter beds more.

That is a resurrection life.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I'm due for a real post

In the meantime, this'll do. (Don't worry; it doesn't reflect my current reality.)

Source: LOLSaints

Saturday, February 07, 2009


I have some sort of bug. My fever broke this morning, but my throat still hurts. Blah.

Have some thoughts about power and choice. I'll get to them, when I have the energy.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Toughness, triumph, transformation

I’m not really in a writing mood, but I wanted to bookmark this for myself. I finished that final at 0-dark-30 Sunday morning. I still feel strong and smart and proud of myself.

I’m climbing such a long mountain with my body, and I have five months to go. I’d forgotten how great it feels, to finish any hard thing.

When I got the diagnosis, last April with four weeks left of school, all deadlines blew out of the water. None of us knew what I would be able to do, or how, or when—and it didn’t matter; I had to take care of my health. My faculty completely supported me. They still do.

I didn’t have a deadline for this project. I kept asking for extensions, and getting them—or just getting, “do this when you can.” Which I needed, for much of that time. He finally said, “You’ve got to do it before spring.” I did. And I learned so much about myself.

I learned that I still can think—just differently. (Instead of braiding strands together, I start somewhere, bounce off somewhere else, and end up with a word cloud of ideas.) I know I’ll get my left-brain back, but I don’t want to lose this ability, either. I learned that work takes me longer, but if I can muster the energy to persist for a few hours a day, I still can get things done. I learned that I can work through exhaustion and frustration. I learned that I am still competent—and spiritually, psychologically, more than I was before the cancer. I worked through and around what I couldn’t do—and found a way to do what I could.

I got to get out from under the chemotherapy bus, so to speak, and feel good about myself again. This is as important to surviving, as injecting myself with needles three times a week. It’s a whole different spin on resurrection.

I say that cancer killed my fear. In the deepest existential sense, I mean that. But I was afraid of not having the mental ability to do this. I proved myself wrong. And now, I can do whatever’s in front of me.


Sunday, February 01, 2009


Woke up at 2 a.m. and finished my Modern Church History final. That's nine months late. That I had one more day to do.

This is huge--and it was so much harder than even I thought it would be.