Thursday, March 26, 2009

Quick update

I’m okay. I’m on spring break. Right now, I’m listening to Schoolhouse Rock on YouTube. I haven’t taken a shower yet, and I have some errands to run when I do. We need yogurt and cheese, and I need a sleeve for my new laptop.

Yes, I have a new computer to play with. Mine finally, permanently died. (There is no resurrection for the motherboard.) I got a new, lower-end HP, two days ago. Not super-snazzy, but it seems to be a workhorse. I like that about it. And I’m still learning my way around Vista.

Cherry-blossom rolls are the food of the gods. And I, again, am covered in cat fur.

I have some thoughts that sort of amble back to the Lenten theme, but am tapping this out as fast as I can right now. Will get to that, when I want to take the time.

I also have a pile of reading, that I need to get to sometime this week. Some for school (Dorothee Solle and field ed books) and some for me (hi, Jane). I also need to update my resume, for the first time in forever.

I found out on Sunday that I’m preaching on the street for the first time, the Sunday after Easter. Ten days later, I’m doing that for the last time, in the CDSP chapel.

I’m really excited about this—and I have no idea how I’ll do it. So if anybody has good tips for preaching outside, where manuscripts don’t work, and sirens go by, I’ll take them. :-)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I just wrote a post about joy

...and then I read Joan’s comment, and took a walk around the neighborhood. What I said was and is true—and I’d be lying, if I left it alone.

I don’t feel invincible. I do feel that after this, I may well be done with cancer—but I know I’m not a medical intuitive. All I’ve got to go on is how my body feels now, and the wish to stay well.

I know very clearly what the risks are, to my health and to my life. I will, when I can, choose healthcare. I don’t know that this option doesn’t carry it. (It’s not something I’m comfortable asking, on the first date. Which is really where I’m at with them anyway.) I do know that I would take it even if it doesn’t, because it’s the work I want, community I want, and would open doors later that I’m barely aware of now.

If carrying COBRA is an option, damn right I’ll do it. I’ll start exploring that on Monday. It means asking for help from willing friends; I don’t yet know how much.

I will not choose safety at the expense of real life. I can’t live in a hermit crab shell.

Where I’ve gotten in my relationship with cancer—go and live your life—is a gift. At the same time, if I were Canadian, as much of that worry as is cosmically possible would be lifted from me. I know this; I’m aware of the injustice that is our health care system. I’m angry about it, appalled by it, and motivated to change it.

The flip-side of taking such deep, soul-healing joy in embracing life, is a profound sadness when I think about losing it. And in the fact that I even have to ask these questions. But I do. The answers I’ve found, are liberating.

I’m beginning to explore, again, my whole relationship with fear. I may not write clearly about that, for awhile.

I don't want, in any way, to romanticize survivorship. What I've learned about myself is amazing, and may well have saved my life in non-physical ways. I love myself, this world, this life. Cancer still sucks. I don't want it again; you don't want it ever.

My head and heart are both talking to me. I'm listening, as well as I can, to both. I'm thinking and praying. I will be, for awhile.

Joy, and light, and life

There’s an opportunity that I have no idea whether I’ll get—but that I really, really want. It would mean a year on the opposite coast, doing work that is completely up my alley, in a living situation that feeds me. All I’ve done is write to inquire about it, and I haven’t heard back. I can’t even say that I’ve properly applied. But I know that if they gave it to me, I’d go. My heart wants this.

The catch: I don’t know what it means for my healthcare. And I know exactly what I’m risking, if I let my coverage lapse.

I had an appointment with my oncologist yesterday; the usual check-up, every two months. He knows I’m graduating (eek!), and asked about my future plans.

“Well. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Really? Why?”

I told him. And I asked him, “How scared do you get for me, hearing that?”

He was completely clear with me about how serious my history is, how uninsurable I am on the private market, and how my greatest medical need is access to surveillance. He told me where I am statistically (40/60 in my favor, against recurrence), and reminded me that the cancer could come back within five years, or out of nowhere fifteen years from now, or never—but that if I need care, I've got to have it. We talked a little bit about county safety nets. He knows there's no actual prosperity in urban ministry.

I’m going to ask on Monday, how expensive COBRA is. I doubt I could pay for it—so staying in California, in the name of stability, does not make me safe.

There is no safety, after cancer. My skin grew something, out of its own tissues, that could have killed me. I feared an invasion inside my own body. The illusion of safety is gone. There is love, and faith, and hope, and truth, and community, and joy. More freedom than I could have imagined. Safety no longer exists—and I don’t know, whether I miss it. It’s hard for me even to remember that innocence.

It's not replaced by a sense of danger, but by knowing that I don't know. And by a deep, cellular hunger for what is real, and bright, and vibrant, and connected, and alive.

The first place I went, when I was diagnosed, was my best friend’s couch. She loves me more than I know. She kept her own fear from me, for weeks. And I knew even then, that she could not protect me. God cannot protect me. I cannot protect me.

Because cancer had not invaded me yet, my surgeon could protect me. But almost a year later, I’m still in treatment, because we can’t be absolutely sure.

I could be free and clear forever. I could have recurrences that mean periodic cutting things out of my skin, and going through the whole panic again about what is or might be in me. I could have a fatal recurrence, not discovered until I’m physically sick, sore, or confused. I will not forget, ever, my first oncologist’s words to me, explaining the order, and likelihood, of possible metastasis: “Lungs, liver, bones, brain.”

Margaret knows: “As a cancer survivor, sister death is always as close as my shadow.”

And I also know, and my doctor repeated, that we never know what's in front of us. I know that I could never listen well enough, or be faithful enough, or be good enough, to keep me safe from cancer. I can follow God and my heart perfectly, and still get sick. This is the world we live in. What I know, is that I am healthy right now.

There is more than freedom in that. There is joy, and light, and life.

He came back again to his bottom line:

"Make choices that protect yourself, when you can. And do what makes you happy in your life."

It's the best advice I ever could have gotten.

What sparked this conversation—the opportunity I would jump at—may or may not actually happen. But this is the way I make choices. The same argument led me to seminary (which ultimately, because health insurance came with it, could have saved my life). My head knows that caution is a losing battle, when my heart says, "Go." And I really wanted to see, what I'm risking when I trust it. And to know whether I would do it, when the cost is more than student debt.

The answer is yes.

I know that fear. I shuddered again, when he gave me the stats that I asked for. And I know, as well as I've ever known anything, that choosing from that toxic, paralyzed place leads to entombment while you are alive.

I understand now, what I only wished for when I was well. I love this life, enough to truly live it.

I had to go through cancer, to get that. And now, this life is mine.

I'll see the doctor again in late June, after I'm done with interferon.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Weaving resurrection

…with so many threads, that they’re starting to tangle. I’ve done an amazing amount of work in the past week; some by choice, some asked of me. I haven’t really had time or energy to catch up. Today, I’m slightly tired but I’m not feeling horrible. I want just to sit with it; I need to write it out, so I’ll remember.

I had the long-awaited follow-up with my parish vocations committee, a week ago Sunday. I’d last met with all of them in December. It took three people, three months to coordinate our schedules; I was at the Ranch for half that time.

We’d been trying to schedule a meeting; in the end, we looked around and noticed that we were all there, and threw some chairs together in the church, after the service. The conversation was easy, and took about five minutes. They said pretty much what I wanted them to say: “Finish school, heal your body, get situated in the work world, and talk to us again in the fall.” Basically, get past these major transitions so we can think straight.

Part of me says, grrrr it takes so much time. Once we start, the first formal step takes about a year and a half. Then there are others. And there is no guarantee ever, that I will get to do what I believe now I want to do. Discernment means listening to God in your community.

But really I know they’re right, and they’re coming from obvious love. And I can see that they’re impressed with the human being I've become. They want to work with me when my life has calmed down, and I’m able to focus. They’re not concerned about my emotional readiness, anymore.

[In December, one told me, “When we met you, you seemed very fragile. I don’t see that in you now.” It may be the highest praise I’ve ever gotten. And what kept me from jumping up off the couch and kissing him, I don’t know.]

That was the central piece of my work, for so long. In the end, cancer worked it in me.

I’m frustrated with my body, but not with the people on this committee. But I also know that I wouldn’t be as healthy as I am, without what the last year has done. There is no way I could have broken through that fragility, if I had not had to.

Work and love and grace. Yet again, cancer cured me of an awful lot of crap.

I asked if there was anything I should particularly explore between now and then. They said just to focus on healing, and keep listening. All of us want me to be really solid, when I/we do this. So, it's frustratingly slow—but it's good.

I talked with one of my teachers last week, and I told her about the feedback I’d gotten. She looked at me like I had two heads.

“You mean, you had to almost die?”

Well, yeah, I guess so. But I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I learned to deal with what was in front of me. And if the word “cancer” itself doesn’t change you instantly, at your root, and forever, I don’t know what would.

It wasn’t the almost dying that changed me. I got myself checked out, finally, before the tumor had invaded my body. Whether I missed that by a whisker, or a year, I’ll never know. I got very sick from the IV interferon—but was monitored closely, and was in no mortal danger.

I was changed, in living with the fact that even though this cancer didn’t kill me, a recurrence could. On a cellular level, what I know I have, is now.

Even if I’m free and clear forever. If one year becomes two, (the magic) five, seven, ten, twenty. And I don’t want to forget that.

One of my teachers told me, sometime last spring, “All of us will die. What makes you different, is you have a name for what may kill you.” He was right. And I want to live a long, full life. But if I die tomorrow, I will know that I lived.

I walked this path the way I walked it. And I would not give any of it back. Cancer scared holy hell out of me—and then it liberated me. If I had to choose to either continue in my innocence, or be who I am now, I would choose to be the person I have become. Every time.

I met with someone on Friday; we’re exploring spiritual direction. I told her all the layers of transition that I’m in. And, how big the cancer piece is. What I know about the valley of the shadow, and about resurrection, my body and my God have taught me. Physically I’m tolerating my treatment—but I can still hear the temple veil, tearing. Almost a year later, my eyes are still blinking in the light.

I told her that one of my earliest responses to the diagnosis was, “Go where this takes you.” She asked where it had taken me. I could answer her in signposts: being told I’m not fragile anymore, and that sort of thing. But it’s really hard for me to get a grip on speaking about this. I know that I am stronger in my core. I’m much more capable, emotionally, than I ever was when I was well. But I am not sure I could tell you, how it feels from the inside.

I still have a dancing-around relationship with fear. I say that cancer killed my fear forever. I am not afraid of death. I don’t think I ever was afraid of God. But when I think about graduating in this economy, “anxious” isn’t a strong enough word. One of the things I’m wading around in, is allowing—not fearfulness, but awareness of fear and acceptance of it—back in. I’m not going to do anybody any good, if I’m chopping my humanity apart. I don’t have to obey it—but it isn’t healthy to deny its existence.

Anyway. That was a side-track, but a useful one. I’ll leave it as a bookmark, for myself.

I talked for awhile, and she asked me questions. She finally told me that she heard the theme of resurrection coming up over and over, in what I said. She asked me if I thought “resurrection hurt.” I don’t know, and I’m not sure I care. When I was getting all the medical news, I was going from data to data, doctor to doctor. Dealing with what was in front of me. “Okay. Tests are coming back clean. This is what the extent of surgery will be. Oh. This is an actuarial table; here is where he says I am. Deep breath. My liver went toxic for two weeks—but I did not end up in the crash room. Whuf. My numbers are stable. I can get through this.” I don’t remember pain, other than physical (from the surgery and side effects of interferon). I remember fear, hope, wonder, sadness, anxiety, joy, frustration—and the absolute certainty that I was walking a sacred path. That’s where I put my energy. I knew that I was very rarely alone.

And I remember when I stopped being afraid. When I knew that everything is, was, and always will be infused with grace. Whether I am cancer-free forever, or not.

So she asked if resurrection hurt. I don’t know. I’ve been causing myself aches and illness for many months. Pain is incidental; you learn to persist through it. However, what catches me is neighbor to that question: What on earth went through his mind, between waking up and getting up?

Because I think that’s exactly where I am. I’m walking out of the valley of the shadow; the sun is rising, but I am not yet bathed in light. I have three and a half more months of treatment, then I will be free, healthy, and well. The clock in the back of my head, ticking down five years, will fade.

I keep coming back to, “You survived cancer. Now, who are you going to be?” And I know that I can answer that, any way I want to.

One of the graces in this, is the time to ask these questions. And to sit with them. This singular blog post has been my central project for days. Not because I’m procrastinating other work—I’m not. Because it can be.

Another place where resurrection touches me, is Thomas. I don’t need to show someone else my wounds, and say, “Touch them.” No one’s asking me if I’m real. But I catch myself wrapping a hand around a wrist, touching my own bones. I need to remember, in my body. “I breathe. I walk. I have been where I have been—and I am alive.”

Solidity is coming up, in a number of places. Solidity of body: listening to the energy I have, and choosing where to send it; when to sleep, when to start a conversation, when to walk outside. Solidity of soul: simple groundedness, honest speech. There is also a social solidity, that I did not even know I was lacking. It comes down to, doing what I say I will—and not volunteering to do what I won’t.

I just came from a weekend with my best friend. We made brownies, and I took naps, and we talked a ton. This came up; I had no idea I was doing it. I think I ought to be able to get a grip on the habit, once I have the energy again to genuinely work on anything. It feels mostly cognitive. I’ve certainly been through harder changes.

Still, I didn’t know I’d been that consistently irresponsible. I never knew the effect it had on her. (It’s not just in this situation, either; I know that my follow-through has often sucked, at school and other places.) She waited, to tell me; I was going through so much emotional trauma and recovery, then I got cancer. I was busy. It wasn’t until she saw me being concerned about solidity, that she brought it up.

It seems like a very small, and doable, thing. A year ago, I would have fallen completely into despair. Now, I think I can fix this. And hearing about it, didn’t destroy me.

Solidity doesn’t mean, biting off more than you can chew and choking it down. It means, making reasonable commitments. And keeping them.

True resurrection is total: body, soul, mind, speech, will, intention. You wake up. You take a deep, long, healing breath. You unbind the cloths from around your body. You stretch your muscles, shake your bones. Scarred, but no longer bleeding, you walk into the light.

A friend from the Night Ministry took me to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. This was my fortune:

"Your choices in the moment will be good ones. Trust yourself."