Monday, September 20, 2010

Two stories

A and I are flying back to Riverside tomorrow. I’ll get readmitted to the hospital on Wednesday. This will be my fourth chemo cycle, and in the past week or so, I’m finally at peace with it. I’m sleeping better, and I feel calmer in general. I know it won’t be as hard on me, physically or emotionally, as it has been in the past.

That peace may be because I realize I’m three months into this diagnosis and feel no worse, and am wondering hopefully if we’re wrestling me into remission. It may be because I’m over the trauma of the first cycle, and realize how much gentler the last one was, with someone who really knew how to support me (and perhaps a body that’s becoming accustomed to it). It may be because A is coming with me, and we know each other well.

More than the chemo, I am at peace with the illness itself. I think it can also be explained by these two stories. I thank God for all good gifts.

1. The rim of the ocean
Was it really just over a week ago? Every cell in my body ached for ocean time. I had just had a day-long, wise and loving conversation that I really wanted to walk with and think about. I would have my first PCOM meeting the next day. I needed sand, water, wind, and prayer.

That Saturday I went to Seacliff, in Capitola, home of the concrete boat. A and I had been there several times before. We were there in June, when I had just been fully diagnosed. It’s familiar, and not hard to get to. It’s only two hours from home.

I drove with my current musical crush—Laura Love turned up loud—and got there about an hour before high tide. I ate some gorgonzola pasta from Gayle’s, took off my sandals, unzipped the legs from my pants (yay for quick-drying fabric!) and started walking.

The water was a foot or two below dry sand, and the place where the slope flattens out. When I wanted my feet to get wet, they did. When I didn’t, I jumped out of the way. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was walking on the rim of the ocean. Dancing on edges, literally, even here.

I knew I was in no physical danger. I didn’t get wet above my knees, except when my shorts got splashed. If you’d only looked at my feet, I would have appeared to have been playing. But I got into the metaphor of it. I was walking, thinking about borderlands in general, and my work and my calling in particular. Fear/love; sickness/health; sheltered/homeless. How to articulate all of this, why these tidal zones are home. How I know that this is where my ministry is.

I got out of my head just long enough to realize something that left me wordless: My body was, in literal truth, dancing on edges. My thoughts only followed. This body that has been through so much pain and horror—that I have been cooperating with, in the name of health—still trusts the Spirit. Still can listen. Still knows how to quietly teach me. Still is absolutely, vitally connected.

I walked, in awe of that. Trying to find words. I could barely whisper, “Thank you.”

I got to the other end of the public beach, found the bathroom, and came out again. In those five minutes, the fog had blown in. I’d left my fleece in the car, and in my light layers, I was freezing. I didn’t want to be out there anymore.

I also had the rogue thought, that I didn’t want the tide to turn. I like being up here, balanced on precarious places. I’m getting good at it. I didn’t want to feel safe.

Catching the implication in that, there was no choice but to go back out. I walked back toward the car, my fleece, and the rest of my lunch. I glanced at my watch. Ten minutes, seven, five. I watched the water, wondering how I’d feel at the moment I knew the tide was turning.

I looked out at the lighthouse. I thought about danger, safety, and strength. And I kept walking. As long as I moved, I stayed warm enough. The water bathed my feet.

I realized something that only the ocean could have taught me. The moon pulls the tides, in and out, constantly. Water is always moving. Spirit is always moving. I’ve gotten comfortable walking with one foot in this world and one in the next. I’m becoming aware that I cherish the gifts that a potentially terminal illness is giving me. [A week later, I know that I am at peace with the illness itself.] Maybe I can help bring assurance of life to the dying. Maybe I can translate between them. I don’t know what it will mean yet, if I can stand with both feet firmly in this world, sharing the gifts from the next one. But I can walk in these borderlands, these tidal zones, all I want to. I can ask for welcome in homeless camps any time I like. Because I know that there is no true danger. Because this is where God has put me. Through gifts in the illness, by nature, or both, this is my home.

I walked back to the car, warmed up, ate the rest of my lunch, and went back out and played for an hour or two. I’d found what I was looking for. I was rejoicing.

2. Even this is gift
I spent several days last week on my geographic holy ground, the Bishop’s Ranch. I go there before every chemo cycle, to walk and write and be. I got to celebrate my birthday there. This happened the day before.

I ran into a friend at the Ranch, Wednesday morning. He’s a light for me, and a rare treat. I never know when I’m going to see him, and it isn’t more than once a year. He was in line for breakfast. I said to him, “The beast is back; pray for me.” And I told him that I really wanted to catch up with him.

He mingled with his own group, and then came and sat at the staff table with me. I told him all about my summer. The beach that weekend, the life-giving meaning in the owl (what if it’s not about death, but formation?), learning to dance on edges. How I had been so scared, and was now coming to peace. How I want to plant my feet in this world, with the gifts from the next one. How ridiculously alive I feel, and what I want to do with it.

He listened, completely with me. And he said, “I’m leading a retreat for Seniors of Grace (Cathedral). Now I know why we forgot the program this afternoon. Will you come and talk to them?”

I got shivers. And I said yes. He told me the outline of their retreat, and that I only needed to tell them what I had told him.

I went out hiking, and thought through it all again. I knew I didn’t need to be nervous. I had never done this publicly, but it totally felt right. I knew I could speak to them—but could I really take everything I’d been through, the spiritual wonderment and the physical and emotional crap that was the occasion for it, and use it all as gift? Could I minister to them, just by being me?

That’s what my friend had invited me to do. And that was amazing. That was gift to me.

We went over it again at lunch. The group’s focus was how they wanted to live, with finite time. Yes, I do think I know something about that. And I only need to tell my story. Okay. So I went back to my room, took fifteen minutes and a deep breath, and outlined things I wanted to remember to share.

I took my place in the circle in the Ranch House living room. He introduced me. I began by explaining my relationship to the Ranch (sort of adjunct staff), how I’d gotten to know my friend, and how we’d gotten talking that morning.

I said to them, “I’m a lot younger than everybody here. I’m turning 40 tomorrow. And, I’m fighting cancer for the second time.”

I told them stories: who I’d been before diagnosis, how it had changed me. Walking through the Cal campus, being told by a voice beyond my own that if I was open to this, I could learn from it. How my community responded in love to me, and how I learned to be open to that love. What it was like to make myself sick for a year. The experiences of this past summer.

He’d given me half an hour to speak. I didn’t think I’d ever fill it. But when I looked at my watch I had done so, perfectly. He directed them to go off on their own for half an hour to write, draw, be with themselves and the things I had just said. I thanked them for the gift they had given me. Some of them gave me hugs, just because they wanted to. Some stayed to talk. One asked me, “What do you think of the afterlife?”

I thought, “You’re asking me like I have any authority at all. Hmm. That’s a new experience. And I had no idea we were going there... but okay.” I told her, “I don’t think about it all that much. I know that God is love.”

Bumper sticker, yes, but true. And I’m not afraid of dying. I know that we will all be loved, then, like we are now—the difference may be that we’ll know it (if we didn’t). The experience of being asked that question will stay with me.

My friend and I went outside, and told more stories to each other about meeting Jesus in strange places (like the BART train). He went back in to lead the next phase of the retreat. I followed him to pick up my notebook and sandals. I went on with my day, being amazed at the gift I had been given.

I got to take everything I’d been through, and use it as gift to minister to others. I’m still almost speechless at the privilege. And I know it will happen more.

When I did my field ed at the Night Ministry, we had Eucharist outside in the Tenderloin on Sunday afternoons. (They still do; at McAllister and Leavenworth at 2, and in the Castro in front of the library at 5.) It was my first experience with street church. One day, I was around the perimeter of the circle gathered around the altar. I was trying to look welcoming: “Yes I know we’re having church in the middle of the street, but it really isn’t that weird.” A man came toward us. I’m guessing he was about 50, because he looked considerably older. He wore rumpled clothes, and dragged a suitcase. He wore a hospital bracelet, which for obvious reasons I zoomed in on.

He never spoke above a whisper. He seemed cautious and shy. I whispered to him what we were doing, and that he was welcome. Then—I don’t know how I missed what he was holding in his hand—he took a little green mesh basket of grapes, and offered it to me. Silently.

I took one. That was Eucharist.

I had completely forgotten that I told the group from Grace that story. I’m not even sure why I told them. The next morning, I went out for my usual after-breakfast hike. I stopped at the grape arbor for a snack (see where this is going?). I ran into my friend again, and I asked if he wanted some. I didn’t even think about it.

He took a grape. I went on my way.

He told me at lunch, he didn’t eat the grape right away. He looked at it, and thought about how I’d given it to him without thinking. In his own mind, he went to a place of spontaneity and radical openness. Hmm, his friend just gave him food. He told the group, when he got back together with them. (He’s the kind of person who’d be open to taking thoughtless encounters to spiritual conclusions. I’d have given him a tangerine, if I’d had one.)

The same person who asked me about the afterlife, remembered the story about the man with the basket of grapes. They used it, in their closing Eucharist. My friend ate the grape, for everyone.

When I think about it, I’m in awe again.


susankay said...

Not just a little in awe of you.

Sometimes the discernment process is celestially irrelevant -- "this is where my ministry is" -- not where it WILL be -- already is.

wv is wortastf -- Word and taste (and see)

Lisa Fox said...

Kirstin, I always read, though I don't often comment. And this is why. You've left me gobsmacked with this one.

Peace, my friend --

Kirstin said...

Thank you both. Susankay, I'll keep that. And Lisa, thank you for being visible.

kat said...

Hmm... I love you, my word-gifted, story-weaving, Christ-hearted friend. I'm going to come back and read this one again.

Thinking of you today as you head to Riverside. Holding you up all day long and into tomorrow. Stay in that stream of peace, dear.