Birthdays, Graduations and Charmed Lives: Everyday Magic, Day 880

img_2834A month ago, I found my old charm bracelet that my parents gave me in 1972. It had two charms to start me out, one for my 12th birthday and another for my graduation from junior high school with room for charms in the future, such as marriage, children, perhaps even grandchildren. In the time I grew up, it was common for women to have charms for rites of passage and other markers mapping the trail into and through adulthood.

I’ve come across this bracelet before, like a treasure lost in a pond that comes ashore haphazardly, and put it away again as a relic of my past. But this time I realized it was time to wear it again. The only problem was that my almost 57-year-old wrist was bigger than my 12-year-old one, so off to Goldmakers we went where Monty managed to somehow make a few new links, not easy given that each tiny link is entwined very fine strands of gold. When I picked up the bracelet the other day and put it on, it felt oddly familiar, and within hours, I remembered how its tiny, sharp jewels had a talent for catching on threads of sweaters and shirts. But it also felt great to wear probably my oldest material possession.

Over the past few days, I realized I didn’t need to add charms to mark occasions and game-changers over the last 44 years because “birthday” and “graduation” pretty much say it all. There are new beginnings to celebrate, births of insight, starts of projects, and the old refrain that to live is to continually begin again. There’s also constant graduations: what we’re finally able to finish, release, or shed img_2837because it’s done or no longer serves us. Of course, not all graduations are liberating: we leaves places and people who are home to us, we lose friends and relations to change or death. Time is one big graduation and birthday machine, churning out opportunities for moving on whether or not it’s our will or desire, and if we’re lucky, celebrations of hard-won leaps and landings. The irony of graduation is that another word for it  is “commencement,” new beginnings, which circles us right back to birth and birthdays. Like seasons that birth themselves, then die into the next season, every moment can be a touchstone, perhaps even a charm to remind us to open our eyes to the vibrant life — even if bitter, painful, tender, or grief-stricken — happening right now.

Tomorrow, on my birthday, I’ll wear my charm bracelet again and try to remember how  I’ve been blessed with a charmed life eve if it catches on my sweater and pulls out a thread here and there. And for all of us today, I want to say, Happy Birthday, Graduates! Keep on shining.

Sustain the Beloved Community, and Reject the New Normal: Everyday Magic, Day 879

Like many people I know, I’m caught in a panoramic response to the presidential election. One moment, I’m crying, another I’m agonizing over an anti-semite named as chief strategist and a racist touted as the incoming attorney general. I turn away from the news to compose myself and listen instead to the wind, consistent in its variety lately, only to return later to the world outside my windows and hear about a potential Muslim registry and how, according to one Trump advisor, the Japanese internment camps were a good model. Sometimes I go numb between the pulses of despair and bad news over how we can stand with those most threatened, and take care of ourselves and this beautiful and endangered world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the making and keeping “the beloved community” as cornerstone of non-violence. This is challenging enough with people we agree with, yet there is plenty of opportunity lately to showing that love. I’ve witnessed and experience immense tenderness in my community and beyond. The day after the election, at our local food co-op The Merc, I walked up to a friend, and we held each other without talking. People I see on the street or at the bookstore check in with each other. We gather in the shadows to find mutual kinship, strength, and courage.

It’s easy enough to soften our hearts and reach out to those who feel the same way we do, but what King meant by the term “the beloved community” is to build community with those who don’t think and vote the same way we do.  As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s buses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

This work is so expansive, a climb up Mount Everest to where it’s hard to breathe, yet  polarization is at the heart of the situation America is in right now. Reality itself is so splintered into all-encompassing separate and even opposite realities on so many issues that it’s as if we don’t occupy the same planet, country, even neighborhoods. As I was standing in line to vote 10 days ago (back in the age of innocence), I thought, “Here we are all together, and I truly don’t understand why some of these people won’t vote the way I’m voting.”

How can we find our ways into civil, respectful dialogues in which we’re actually able to drop our shields and swords? I find this very difficult because there’s so much we need those shields and swords for right now, but on a person-to-person basis, I applaud anything we can do to soften the heart-hardened polarization between us. I think of a friend of mine who called a state representative’s office about Steve Bannon. When the aide said the media was exaggerating Bannon’s history of racism and antisemitism, my friend read him Bannon quotes (the aide said, “Oh, I didn’t know that”), and they ended up having a conversation instead of a confrontation. Will one conversation change anything? Probably not, but dozens might, and multiplied across our country, millions will.

By reaching out to those we disagree with, I’m not in any way saying anyone should accept attacks (some already in process) on Muslims, the LBGTQ community, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Immigrants, Women, Jews, People with Disabilities as the new normal. Everyday, I read about swastikas spray-painted on synagogues, racist slogans hurled out of speeding cars toward people of color, and even a horrible incident in which a bunch of middle-school kids yelled at a Mexican-American kid, “Build the wall.” We need to stand with those targeted, and stand up for civility and peace.

The fact that these things are happening speak to a terrible truth: there’s so much hatred and fear of each right under the surface, even traces of it in the best of us. We have a great many gated communities in America whether they have literate gates or not; so many places that are racially segregated especially. Although I have friends, family, and colleagues of color, I can look around at a lot of places I go and see mostly white people. There’s a lot to learn about why we’re splintered in so many ways, and what splinters we may have to remove from our own ways of seeing.

I think of small rural towns where I give talks on books with Jewish content, often being the first Jew some people there ever met. With a safe space for people to ask questions, I continually encounter a healthy sense of curiosity. I think of how the gay marriage movement gained great momentum quickly because so many people in all walks of life knew someone who was gay, and how, a friend of mine single-handedly changed many people’s attitudes toward lesbians by chatting up her neighbors in a very conservative Kansas town.

This is a wake-up call for us to reach beyond our echo chambers and begin conversations, person by person, and to not to take “liberty and justice for all” part of our Pledge of Allegiance for granted. There’s a lot to do right now to show that we are not accepting such hatred as innate to our government and country, and many are already taking action: calling and writing legislators, donating to advocacy groups, organizing community meetings and events, facilitating development of meaningful actions, and writing, singing, performing, dancing, and others to put forth the vision and real unity we need.

It’s also a time to balance the sometimes impossible work of how to take good care of ourselves as a vital part of this beloved community but still do good in the world. Self-care as well as caring for each other is essential for the long haul, and we’re likely in the duration. Humor, health, breaking bread (gluten-free or otherwise), long walks, deep sleep, rallying around those in grief or crisis, listening deeply, showing up, and reinhabiting our individual bodies as well as our communities all are part of the mosaic we’re making out of the broken shards around us.

The Moon is Still the Moon: Everyday Magic, Day 878

I thought I would be crying tears of relief and joy. Instead, I sit in the dark at midnight while Ken tries to sleep, occasionally check on my remaining hopes for Hillary to win (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania), and cry tears of grief and fear in between the bouts of seemingly calm shock. I’ve asked dozens of times, “How could this have happened?” after months of carefully following data on the presidential race, the country’s changing demographics, and my own clear-as-a-ringing-bell sense that all would be well. How could they be wrong? How could I be wrong? How could America be wrong?

Tonight Ken and I gathered with friends to watch the election results over a lovely dinner. As we switched channels, watching one set of pundits and reporters or another — all trying to fill in the gaps between state results with speculation about why, what, and who — I felt like my whole digestive tract was ready to leave my body. I felt my chest tightening, and my hope and faith melting on the floor in a faraway room. Our friends, Ken and I looked at each other, all our eyes sad. It was time to remember a vast reality right outside t10986016_414719278737645_1354126213_nhe door.

So we bundled up and headed out into the dark, cold air, walking across broken and buckling sidewalks somewhat hidden by leaves, the almost-half moon over our right shoulders. We talked of course of potential horrors in between shutters of is-this-happening heartbreak. Then we went to the wishing bench.

Located in east Lawrence, the wishing bench has a sign that says, “Please make a wish. You will not be disappointed.” It’s festooned with ribbons and crocheted pieces, poems and coins, and whatever people bring and leave to it, sometimes Santa Claus, sometimes streamers or wind chimes. I have, especially with the one of the friends there with me tonight, made many wishes here, and we’ve never been disappointed.

The four of us wedged together to called out “Wisconsin! Michigan! Pennsylvania!”, pray, wish, asked America to get it together, and even sing a song usually sung for someone needing healing: “America be well/ America be well/ All manner of being is well….”

img_2744Walking back, facing the moon, all I could think beyond the spinning script of election results and associated terror, is that the moon is still the moon. The sun is still the sun. The air, first hard frost expected tonight, is still the air. The ground — the very ground where I will soon plant dozens of irises, daffodils, hyacinths, even some peonies — is still the ground.

Now in our bedroom, safe from the elements and occupied by sleeping animals of several kinds, I light a candle in a blue glass holder painted with a woman standing in tree pose, her arms and branches reaching out in the dark toward something. I read the quote on my zen calendar, this one by Zora Neal Hurston: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Our year has just turned although I can’t yet see the questions we’ll be asking or what those questions will be asking of us, breath by breath. Meanwhile, no matter the outcome, I ask the wishing bench not to disappoint, our bench here, and wherever you can sit for a moment in your life and wish with all your tenderness and fierceness, gratitude and woundedness.

May all manner of beings be well within and beyond this beautiful, divided, vibrant, broken and promised land. May we walk or roll together to do the good work ahead and grow our capacity for love. May we never feel alone under this sky where we share the same moon.

 

Voting for All the Girls, Women, and Beyond-Gender-People We Love, Know, Were or Are

When I walk into the voting booth Tuesday and pencil in the bubble for Clinton/Kaine, I have no doubt I’ll be crying in hope for who I’m voting for and relief in who I’m voting against.

I vote for all the girls and women who have been told we look “wrong”: too fat or thin; our breasts are too big, small, high or low; that we smell bad or need to dress more sexy. I vote against all messages that have sparked long-term shame and internalized streams of self-hatred in us. For me, this stretches from my father telling me to lose weight until marriage (then I could “let myself go”) to my maternal grandmother measuring worth in pounds (when one of her friends was dying from cancer, she said, “At least, she got her figure back”). I stand with all of us wounded from messages so pervasive that we constantly breathe them in from family, community, media, stereotypes, fashion and all invisible and visible forces of culture, all of which have told us we’re not enough or too much or would beautiful if only we’d treat ourselves as objects constantly needing costly renovations. I vote for beauty defined as being alive, even, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, the erotic redefined as the vital life force we embody.

I vote against the sexual shamers — the abusers, assaulters, tormentors — from the guys on the street catcalling my daughter as she walks to work, to the weighty and edgy wounds so many of my friends carry from being raped, beaten, betrayed and silenced. I know few women who don’t have a story or many stories of being “grabbed by the pussy” or threatened in some way for denying consent. From the movie theater manager who, when I was 19, cut my hours when I refused to “hang out” with him at the secret (from his wife) apartment he had, to the dads, grandfathers, brothers, uncles and “family friends” who raped so many of my friends, I vote against those who treat others’ bodies as their own private sex toys, who steal souls and some of our ability to trust our own instincts and responses. I vote for candidates who smash the myths that “she was asking for it,” or “locker room talk” is acceptable. My vote as millions others’ votes adds to the dialogue that misogyny — in this first election I can recall where people actually say “misogyny” aloud and in print so regularly — must transform into real and breathing respect for all of us. I want my vote to wrap around survivors and let them know millions of us hold space for their stories, long-term healing, beauty and strength.

I vote for Hillary Clinton, a  woman who is also vastly qualified, to occupy the highest office in the land. When I was born in 1959, there were only a smattering of women in congress; today, women comprise 19.4% of Congress (House and Senate combined), which is beyond pitiful. I vote with Geraldine (Jerry) Emmett, 102 years old and born before women had the right to vote. I vote for my mother, Barbara Goldberg, who took us to anti-war marches in the late 1960s, and took herself to women’s marches in later years. I vote for my daughter, sons, nieces and nephews —  and their future children —  having ample opportunity to speak up and out, facilitate real and lasting positive change, and be fully themselves. I’m voting for millions of girls and women who were called in very cell of their body to lead their communities or country, but found no door to open or window to crawl through. Let all us cross the thresholds we’re meant to cross.

I also vote for all those beyond or outside of tradition gender designations like being straight or being strictly male or female. I wrap my arms around my lesbian, gay, queer,  trans and other beyond-traditional-grander friends who, although most now have the right to marry, still face legalized discrimination, harassment and violence, suppression and silencing. I vote in the name of Matthew Shepherd, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, the Saints of Stonewall, Harvey Milk, James Baldwin, Chelsea Manning, Billie Holiday, Laverne Cox, the Trans women of color who “put Stonewall on the map,” (and all those unnamed in this very short list), and the many young people I’ve gotten to know and love who transitioning or thinking of it. May they have a clear path with the love around them.

I vote with every woman, man, queer, and/or trans person who, when they fill out their ballot, will need a tissue or won’t be able to suppress an inner hallelujah.

P.S.

Caveat #1: By focusing on girls and women, I don’t mean to imply, in any way, that other issues aren’t  essential too, particularly the future of moving toward a society that welcomes, respects and integrates people of color, people who live with disabilities or physical distinctions, children and elders, environment and climate,

Caveat #2: My friends, I know we’re diverse in our responses to Hillary, some of us voting for her to prevent a Trump presidency; some us, like me and and Louis C.K. all in on the woman. Some of us will be voting for third party candidates, or writing in Bernie Sanders or Che Guevara (but please, only in you live in states that are foregone conclusions for Trump or Clinton). If you’re voting for Trump, I do have a hard time understanding that, and maybe after the election, we can have a civil discussion to seek greater understanding.

A Beautiful Moment in a Time of Despair: Everyday Magic, Day 876

img_2686It’s hard to look at the news or social media without feeling like we’ve failed as a species. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, the bees — essential for the pollination that feeds the world — are endangered, and a presidential candidate not only brags about sexual assault but calls his accusers names, all the time unleashing America’s underside of horrendous sexism, racism, xenophobia and other social illnesses. Below the splay of horrifying headlines, I’m tuned into the stories of beloved friends and family, some of whom are struggling mightily with depression, debt, grief, and other ailments of our time and propensities of being human. Having had an on-and-off-again cold and some nightmares lately, I’ve dipped into the pot of despair at my most local level too.

As I turn away from the news of collapsing politics and ecology, I also see this: the sky to the west is filling with clouds, the wind is tossing around the heads of the big, leafy trees, and the last tomatoes have ripened on the vine. The moon, rising over the field last night, lit the tips of the grasses silver. Ten hours later, the horizon shines golden white. As Charles Bukowski says in one of my favorite poems, “The Laughing Heart” (watch this great little film here!):

be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
darkness

Add to that one of our favorite Leonard Cohen (and all-time-ever) choruses from his song, “Anthem,”

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

So during this season of some very real despair and enduring danger all around us, I’m looking at this moment, another time of great beauty and promise, toward what light I can find, letting it penetrate the cracks I carry in my hope and heart.

Surviving with Gumption & Grace: Everyday Magic, Day 875

14570306_10154659715690159_959994163246427131_nToday, I had the honor of giving a keynote note at the Days of Caring event in Hays, Kansas — a luncheon and fashion show to raise awareness about breast cancer. Here’s the talk I gave, drawing on my experiences and writing as well as what I’ve been witnessed to witness through facilitating writing workshops and being with community. Thanks to Juno Ogle, who chaired the event and invited me to participate, and the others who made this happen (Brenda, Andrea, Donna and everyone one else). P.S. I also got to mosey on the catwalk in my first fashion show ever. Thankfully, I didn’t trip.

Surviving With Gumption and Grace

Your Life is Your Life

Know this when you must lie

completely still on the steel table

while the glass plate presses down

on your chest. Your life

obviously your life. Dream it back

into your memory for when

the kool-aid-colored chemo

is pumped into the plastic port

in your clavicle. Tell yourself

this when the doctor comes in

to talk with you, carrying

a small box of tissues. Don’t

forget then how your life is

your life, not when the phone rings

at the wrong time, or the biopsy needle

inserted in your left breast shoots

its click near your heart. Your life beats

loud and often. Your life

surges against itself

in at least some cells so tell it

your life is your life

when you sit, naked from

the waist up on the examining table.

Your life there talking with

the pharmacist or here on the couch

is your life. Pick it up

and hold it close

especially when the wait

is long and the news is bad.

Tell your life what it is.

I wrote this poem in the middle of my cancer when I was learning a whole lot about a word I didn’t know at the time: sisu. This Finnish word with no English translation loosely means grit, bravery, guts, resilience, perseverance, in short, all the spirit and imaginative courage of the word gumption. Grace speaks to that illusive quality of aligning ourselves with the blessings and sacredness of life. Altogether, gumption and grace names for me what it means to make and re-make our lives out of the materials we’ve been given. In my case, and for many of you too, cancer is part of what we work with, and no wonder given that the latest statistics indicated that one out of three of us will face some form of cancer.

How to grow gumption and grace in our hearts, lives and communities? One of the big things I learned through cancer – having it, being with loved ones who survived or didn’t, and facilitating writing workshops for people with cancer for many years – is how much we need to steer by our own feet and flashlights through dark times. Advice from others is often over-rated, especially when you face big decisions. So for the sake of this talk, I’m going tell you my story, aiming toward what lessons I learned about grace and gumption, with the caveat that your life is your life.

Listen to Your Story

“Everything can be survived if it’s part of a story” goes an old Yiddish proverb. Our cancer tells its own tale as we live our own much-larger-than-just-cancer story, intermingled narratives that can’t help but change one another. I both expected breast cancer, given that my mom and aunt each had it twice, and didn’t until I was much older. But when I was 42 with three young children, the news landed in me and began changing how I understood being a body and woman, a change, as my oncologist Dr. Matthew Stein told me, would keep unfolding the rest of my life. Here is the beginning of that story from my memoir, The Sky Begins At Your Feet.

We were completely lost in the Flint Hills of Kansas, and I didn’t care. All we could see were the wide expanse of hills, sky, cows, and the occasional rock, skeleton of a windmill, or fragmented stones from pioneer homes. I stared out the front passenger side window, marveling at the lush green rising and falling all directions, hardly any power lines because there was so little for the lines to power. The land looked surely as it had appeared for hundreds, thousands of years. Tall grass sloped all over itself on what felt like the top of the world, and everywhere the wind conspired with the sun to make the grasses gleam. It felt like being at very high altitude, only instead of mountains, windmills.

Expansive as galaxies, the Flint Hills lay down all directions like long, lanky bodies rolling away from or toward each other. “The sky begins at your feet,” writes essayist Anne Herbert, and there’s nothing like wandering around the center of Kansas to prove this, and also to find out how easy it is to get lost in the sky.

Early this March morning, the sun illuminated the curves of the land and long shadows of trees and rocks in such a way that we let ourselves get lost without a second thought. My friends and my nine-year-old daughter and I were driving all over Chase County, looking for the ranch of a woman we were to visit for an event we were organizing the following fall. Now we were driving eight miles in the vibrant hills down the wrong road.

None of us spoke when we reached the dead-end. Instead, Joy just u-turned the car around, skimming some of the grass, and we headed back in the direction from which we came. We were all too taken with the sensation that this land went on forever….

I didn’t know that once we righted ourselves, found the woman we were to meet, delighted in driving all over the county for a few more hours, and eventually made our way home, I would begin another kind of trip. I didn’t know that while I was merrily lost, a technician from our local hospital’s mammography department was leaving a message on my answering machine that would lead to an old doctor, white-tufted and shaking his head, who would say, once he saw the mistletoe-shaped lump in my breast, “Yes, this looks very worrisome indeed.”

I just knew how alive I felt, and how the world seemed, at that moment of being lost, to be forming anew, which, it turned out, was also true.

I believe in those first glimpses as well as hard-won, long-term truths. In that first glimpse of being lost and alive, I saw something that would lead me: the beauty of the always-in-motion world, friends and community, land and sky. Within a short time, the wonder my big-picture wonder turned to fear and what many of us diagnosed with serious illness experience: a disconnect between the life we thought we were leading and the one that turned up, between who we saw ourselves as, and who we are at this moment. I wrote this poem, printed in Reading the Body, about that moment.

Diagnosis

Not what you’d expect, not in this ordinary body:

the phone message on the machine that says,

mammogram” and “irregular,” the technician’s voice

later who tells you there’s something

to look at, make sure, check, just in case.

Then it’s that moment alone in the bedroom,

the chair so large and forgiving, the panic

that suddenly seems extraterrestrial, the incessant

questions while the wait stretches its beginning

to meet you.

Until the second x-ray hangs on the lit box

singing out its small constellation of calcium, until the

surgeon’s receptionist touches your shoulder kindly

and nods, until you lie on a still table

while a nurse looks, shrugs just a little,

until that call, and those words which come

by the time you already know them, you

already know the walls of your body falling away,

this dropping down to your seat, to your notebook

where you write it down because you’re supposed to,

to your fingers looking so normal

as they hold the pen and paper, unfurling

this new script, this open page

of a body where, without moving an inch,

you’ve become a flesh-and-bones double

of who you always were – one who has cancer,

one who can’t believe it, and both of you

standing up, shaking the hand of the doctor,

walking out into widest sky you’ve ever seen.

I thought cancer would be quick and not interfere with my life too much – a lumpectomy, some radiation, and I’d be back in the saddle again as if nothing has changed but a little less boobage. But after my lumpectomy, the bad news kept getting worse. I had Stage 2 cancer with metastases in the lymph nodes under my left arm. When the word “chemo” was first mentioned, followed quickly by “oncologist,” I was terrified. I threw up easily and was very sensitive to medicine. Hell, I can’t even drink a beer without a migraine, so how could I possibly do chemo?

I reluctantly went to Dr. Stein, a compassionate and wise oncologist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, with my husband and a lot of paper for note-taking After meeting for two hours, I was skeptical about chemo but in the face of statistics that mapped out a very shortened life without chemo, I agreed.

Chemo, like everything else, is not what we think. I could still work as a teacher and workshop leader. I could still write, throw a frozen pizza in the oven for the kids, and watch chick flicks while guzzling iced water. I was, and this is what surprised me most during the six months I did a rather aggressive regime of chemo, still me, not erased by my treatment, just dampened down. Sure, there was discomfort, pain, fear storms that blew in from seemingly nowhere like dust storms that covered everything, lots of doctors appointments, impressive projective vomiting, a rush to the hospital with an infection, and all manner of side effects, which I compared in my memoir to a walk through the Princess Bride’s fire swamp. There were mouth sores, headaches, queasiness, blasts of steroid-induced cleaning spurs that left me listless the next day, and massive mood swings that could have been from chemo, temporary menopause chemo catalyzed, depression or all of the above.

There was also meals delivered by friends and family so regularly for six months that we had to beg people to bring less food, surprise guests from other periods of my life who wrapped me in love, strangers who carried my bags to the car and hugged me, my children and husband especially being there in ways that kept bringing me back to the real life, and a whole lot of humor, one of the most important ways I found to feel almost normal. Here’s another excerpt from The Sky Begins At Your Feet.

The Tattooed Lady

After my buzz cut, right after the second chemo treatment when my hair was supposed to fall out, it fell out in such slow motion that I started to look less like a Holocaust victim and more like a very confused duckling. That was when I called Courtney and Denise. Veterans of shaved heads, and lured also by the promise of spaghetti and meatballs, they came right over.

While the pasta boiled, Denise shaved a checkerboard on my head, telling me it looked awesome. Courtney nodded, but Ken, walking in the door after a long day at work, told me I looked like a gang member. The kids trailing behind him just gaped at me.

I went to the mirror. White supremacist. Not really my look. So I asked Denise to shave it all off. Sometime after spaghetti and meatballs, with Courtney and Denise joking about my cool new look….I found my hand reaching for a pack of fake tattoos. Birds. All different kinds – cardinals, blue jays, eagles, owls. Some of the birds had wings outstretched, mid-flight, and others were perched. The tattoos were my nine-year-old daughter Natalie’s, and neither she nor I could remember where she got them.

Tattoos. Bald head. A flash of electricity jumped between them. I knew what I had to do.

I put a cardinal right over my left eye, a goose over my right, and the others became part of the garland around my head. Flight. Wings. Color. Beauty. They just seemed to belong there.

When I came back to the table, where Forest, was passing out ice cream bars, he started giggling. “Are those permanent?” Daniel, aged 12, asked.

“Oh my god,” said Natalie, but she was smiling. “Mom, you’ve got freaking birds on your head!”

The tattoos were indeed temporary, and within a week, my birds started to tatter, but I found a toy store that carried temporary tattoos….It became a ritual: Once I week, I would shave my head smooth of the nubs that had started to erupt, and then carefully, with a wet washcloth, apply a circle of mammals, amphibians, butterflies, or sometimes flowers. The ring of flora or fauna lightened up the chemo for the kids and for me and took the bald edge off my life. Once, as I lifted a bag of groceries, a woman called out, “Hey, I like your fishies.”

I turned and looked at her, trying to smile as I said, “They’re whales.”

I walked into the hall of Forest’s elementary school where some kindergartens stared at my head, so I bent down.

“Wow! Dogs,” one said.

“That one looks like our puppy,” said another.

For a chemo appointment, I wore flowers, small delicate pansies, daisies, and roses. For a taco dinner at Ken’s parents’ house, I sported small woodland creatures, a fox over my third eye. For getting the oil in the car changed, I wore wolves….

One day, when a teacher saw my bald head as I picked Natalie up, he looked at my garland of galloping horses, and called out, “Hey, who did you lose a bet with?”

“God,” I answered.

But it turned out that at least God had a good sense of humor, and there was something about wearing a ringlet of kittens around my scalp that made chemo seem a lot less like a pact with the devil.

No pact, but a pack: the pack of people I come from who, it turned out, seemed like sure bets to have the BRCA genetic mutation for cancer – breast cancer widespread, pancreatic cancer that killed or would kill my dad and his brother. When my genetic test came back, I was positive for BRCA 1, and so had some big, or rather, size B-cup decisions to make about whether to have my breasts, ovaries and uterus removed. With an 87% chance of recurrent breast cancer and a 44% chance of ovarian cancer, I decided, with ample support from many nurses, my oncologist and surgeons, and most of all, Ken, family and friend, to let it all go. From Reading the Body:

Lilac

The day after they cut my breasts off,

just home from the hospital, not even

napping or talking on the phone yet,

that day, I walked on my own two legs

down the dirt road over the slope

of loose rocks, cradling, as I walked,

the broken body, the large orange handled

clippers, the big wind holding me,

the man I loved behind me getting ready

to start his car to come get me,

that day beginning the healing

from all of it – unslashed

from the expectation of what knife or infusion

comes next

 

was the day I made my way to my mother-in-law’s

old-fashioned dark purple lilac, and reached against

the tightness of gauze and paper tape, against

the odd sensation of parts removed and scars

just making themselves, against my sore arms reaching

toward their old strength

 

to gather and hold,

to cut and cut and cut

all I could fill my arms with,

all the dark purple alive with death and

birth, loss and blossom, and the white ones too.

 

My arms filling with the explosion of lilac,

my life filling with wind and weight of branches,

all of it against, upon, my open chest,

all of it ready to be carried

into the next life

that starts right now.

After 14 months of chemo, three major surgeries and a few minor ones, dozens of casseroles delivered with love, countless long talks with my husband about every angle of this journey, three surgeons, one oncologist, and a bevy of holy nurses, I was done. “Am I cured?” I asked Dr. Stein. “We won’t know for sure for five years,” he answered, and when it comes to mortality, we’re never completely cured, yet hanging out with it catalyzes many responses. Here is what I wrote about my one-year anniversary in The Sky Begins At Your Feet:

Happy Anniversary, Darling!

Anniversaries are major deals for survivors, and often the way we introduce ourselves to doctors, support groups, and other survivors….it seems like something that would fit well on a stick-on name tag, yet it carries the weight of healing and defiance, hope and fear, the future and the past….

Still, I cling to my (cancer) anniversary date, March 21st, the spring Equinox, as another fence post I’ve reached in my life’s wandering through the wide prairie lands – no path often present – of struggles and arrivals. Since my cancer treatment ended, two conflicting impulses have been released into my bloodstream: to hold tight to the wider view of life that cancer gave me, and to get as much done as possible, because who knows when I’ll die.

Let’s just say that, at first, the “get as much done as possible” gene was dominant, which isn’t so surprising given my history of packing my schedule to fill each pocket with something to do, my workaholic father, and my infatuation with starting new projects. I shot out of the cannon at high speed, adding to my life more administrative work related to my teaching job, and more writing projects, workshops, groups, and volunteer obligations.

But just like the earlier rise and fall from the chemo steroids, after flowing with this jet-stream for a while, I crashed into the ground, where I found my second impulse taking deeper root.

The second impulse led me to others’ stories, the veil gone as they spoke and wrote about what mattered most in the writing workshops I started first at various hospitals before settling into regular writing retreats at Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing in Kansas City. From The Sky Begins At Your Feet, here is one of those sessions, incidentally, on my third anniversary:

I look at the square table surrounded by seven faces, and remember that the group last year had 12. Gone is an elegant retired nurse and lover of piloting planes, who came last spring wearing beautiful pink sweaters and accented scarves, saving her energy all day from her breast-to-liver metastasized cancer for a chance to write stories about her life. Gone is the young mother of two small boys who had been told she was probably going to be okay only to find….she had a particularly aggressive kind of cancer that moved at lightning speed all through her organs. Gone is the woman who gave other members tremendously wry and wise support while she was caught in extensive treatment for rectal cancer. “I’m just a pain in the ass,” she reminded us, months before her death.

We spend a lot of time in these groups laughing and crying….Often, just introducing ourselves brings tears of relief – here, people can write about whatever they want without having to protect loved ones. Those tears also come from the caregivers, who feel that monumental pressure to hold up the other, to put their fear and dread on a shelf so they can get in the kitchen and cook up something good to eat, feed the life that feeds them.

But it’s the laughter that stays with me – the jokes about “You look great!” and the comebacks of, “What do you mean? That I usually look like shit?” The way Katie begins one of her poems with, “Don’t give me that look, that look that says I have Rumsey Funeral Home on speed dial.” The cracks about how sexy we look without boobs or hair….wearing compression sleeves or carrying our canes.

When I get home one summer night, Ken asks, “Doesn’t it hit on all your own cancer issues to do this work?” He thinks it might depress me, but no, it does the opposite.

I think of Linda, a writer and photographer who has been taking my Kansas City workshop throughout her late-stage ovarian cancer. Last week, Sue said to her, “You know, my breast cancer was caught early, and it’s nothing compared to what you have. When I’m with you, I feel like I’m really okay.”

I’m glad my dying makes you feel better,” Linda said with a straight face, her page boy wig distinguished, as she catapulted us all into the kind of laughter that takes your breath away.

Maybe my ease has to do with how Linda’s dying helps me cultivate perspective, give up sweating the small stuff so much (by the way, it’s 12 years later, and Linda’s still alive). But I suspect it has more to do with the courage I witness, week after week, in all the workshops I do: the way that people are willing to take great risks in the stories they write and tell; how the veneer of what we think keeps us safe is gone in such workshops. What really matters is unearthing meaning, clearing the obstacles out of the way, including fear and doubt, insecurity and low confidence, to feel more alive in the process of creation.

It also has something to do with the stories I hear and the stories I witness. The man who reads a poem he wrote to his wife, who just finished breast cancer treatment, about how strong she is, crying throughout his reading while reminding us, “Hey, I’m an engineer! I never cry, and in this workshop, I can’t stop.”

I remember Linda’s words, “I don’t believe we were writing toward specific endings. They just happened serendipitously and wonderfully.” She reads me one of her favorite endings, “Every fiber of me begs to wake up—to wake up, electric, stunned, and newly alive.”

It’s everything Linda says, that new life available at any given moment for the looking. The faint breeze that comes through us as we get ready to leave one place and land in another. All the time.

At the same time, I realize that who gets to live through cancer has nothing to do with personal goodness. I see women who have similar diagnoses to mine face recurrence or sudden death. While treatment choices, lifestyle, diet and attitude certainly weigh in on mortality, cancer is also so catalyzed by a complex web of what we know and what’s beyond our knowing. A spin of the dice as to why Marla survives stage four breast cancer for five years, and why Edie endures three recurrences of what was supposed to be caught early and easy to treat. So often cancer has nothing to do with character, fairness, risk or daring.

Given the poisons infused in the soil, water and air, in our bodies and the bodies, stems, trunks and cores of other species, all I know is how much humans are not exempt from the earth. Some of us have a little more of the canary in the mineshaft in us than others, but we’re all in the mineshaft together.

We live in a dangerous world. We live in a beautiful world. What is essential in our stories can save us from and for something, but often we have to wrestle with the story to find such treasure. Throughout my chemo, I told myself the story of Jacob and the angle from the old testament. Jacob didn’t just wrestle with the angel until he was freed but until he could exact a blessing from that angel. Each chemo treatment, I told myself, thanks to good advice from a healer and friend, to take it all in deeply, then not release it until my body received the blessing of bad cells dying so good ones could flourish. After treatment, I realized that wrestling with challenges to find the blessing isn’t a bad way to dance with gumption and grace. We can puzzle out with what comes enough blessing to transform trauma, loss, pain and uncertainty into whatever meaning there is for us.

Looking for meaning entails getting cozy with where and who we are, including our interior weather, which can change on a dime, especially during moments of great compression where mortality is more than an abstraction. We might feel numbness, disconnection, even denial, which can be a mighty helpful tool when letting the floodgates open would drown us or we just need to take a break from the pain, terror, or confusion.Whatever comes, the last thing we need to pepper it with is shame for what we feel. I’ve seen so many people, including myself, needing to go through momentary pity parties and hate-the-world bouts, and while we can likely agree this isn’t a good place to live, I believe part of growing our gumption and finding grace is not avoiding our own souls.

In the middle of my treatment, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Oh no! Not another learning opportunity!” “Oh no” is right as well as “oh, well.” Each moment, each project, each relationship, each life has its own calling – something we can engage in to bring this to its highest manifestation. The lessons are in having a conversation with the callings.

My cancer told me, in billboard-sized lettering, to take better care of myself, extend my awareness well behind my frontal lobe to encompass my whole body, and love that body even if cultivating this love is life-long and more prone to show itself in glimpses. I learned not just about my own resilience, but about the resilience of my family and community, and how it was a gift to me to accept help as well as a gift to those who give it. I’m still learning how vulnerable, fragile, strong, and surprising I am, how I’m not always who I thought I would be, and neither is anyone else. I have the rest of my life to study how to be fully human and alive, to notice the great beauty and power all around me possible in love and care.

What astonishes me is the courage we’re all capable of, not just to endure chemo, radiation, surgery, and losses, but to continually discover more of what the world in around and within us. John Willison had paratoid cancer, slow-moving as a lonely and overloaded freight train, he once told me. In the Turning Point writing workshops he attended for six years, sharing writing of such magic and exactness in naming what is that everyone in the group would routinely lean forward and smile when it was his turn to read. As he was dying, a friend as well as a workshop participant by then, I worked with him to publish his first and last book of poems, I Have My Home in Two Worlds. Here is an excerpt from one of his poems about loving whatever comes – feeling what you feel, and embracing the lesson:

Reasons to Love Grief

You should love grief, because, chastened so,

when it goes out, if it goes out at all,

into the assault of the world,

it’s under cloak and veil, too ashamed,

too raw to reveal itself, all rag and bone.

 

Love grief, because there are moments when

it decides to go some distance away –

to a lonely cabin by the lake, which it considers

jumping into because it’s always wondered

what it would be like to drown.

 

You should love grief because it isn’t itself anymore.

It goes out to bars, drinks all night, hurls insults,

gets into fights and comes home, all cut and bruise.

 

Love grief because when it looks in the mirror,

it does not see itself reflected back.

It has been hollowed and emptied out

and simply wants to drop down

into the stone cold ground.

 

You should love grief because it is a lost girl,

abandoned by those who should have loved her.

 

Even her friends just chit and chat,

talking about their next meal,

getting their fill of the world

while sitting next to them,

there is someone starving.

 

It is all that, but it is also this:

the tenderest thing just a tear away

from breaking wholly open,

letting the deepest love it has ever experienced

 

come spilling out.

And love your grief because

if not you, who then.

When it comes to serious illness or any of the ways life can kick us when we’re down, it’s especially hard to stand back up so no wonder there’s a lot of talk of cultivating resilience – the ability to bounce or bend instead of crash-land and break. I think feeling what you feel – discovering more about who you are through what life gives you – is the other side of finding our resilience. We see how low we can go and how, against the odds, we get out of bed, stumble toward the kitchen, and pour ourselves a cup of lukewarm coffee, each day beginning again.

At the same time, there is this: this moment, right now tumbling into autumn around us as the fields yellow and grasses redden. Right now in this room lit by the faces of those who know surviving might come breath by breath, but thriving comes by being with those who have eyes to see and hearts and to hear. Which also speaks to how we can’t often sustain gumption or grace without community, family, friends, a circle of people who really “get” us, witness our story, invite us into theirs, and share the wealth of our collective courage, insight, and examples. Listening to one another enhances our ability to hear ourselves, to see our own story as part of the unfolding mosaic of our days and lives. In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Julie Cowdin, a participant in both my Turning Point and Lawrence Memorial Hospital writing workshops, wrote this poem, published in My Tree Called Life:

To Other Survivors

I am never alone.

You heard the words, “You have cancer” before I did.

I am never alone

You were afraid before I was.

I am never alone.

You cried rivers before I did.

I am never alone.

You once had poison running through your veins.

I am never alone.

You were bald once too.

I am never alone.

You’ve had the same surgeries.

I am never alone.

You tried to soothe your burning flesh.

I am never alone.

You were beautiful, gracious, living survivors before I was.

Survival often gets confused with heroism as if not surviving cancer means failure when in my book at least, it’s what we do with our lives that lifts us and others around up. Julie’s cancer returned, and she died, leaving behind young children and a loving husband as well as her writing and humor – she often called herself the Edgar Allan Poe of our writing workshops. In her words about how we’re never alone, we can also look around right now and see in each other, look within and see in ourselves, our love we carry all of our days for those now gone. We can carry that love into our work and play, art and solitude, dreams and understandings. As anyone who’s suffered a big loss knows, the relationship doesn’t end with death; it continues on over time, a conversation in and with our souls even if the one gone doesn’t speak up enough to hear what he or she is saying most of the time. Memories bubble up through the surface or flow down from the heavens, bringing ache and yearning as well as sweetness.

I watched and loved a great many people – my dad, my stepdad, numerous people in the writing groups I lead, and most recently, a dear friend – die from cancer, and what I found is how important it is to be present with and listen deeply to those we care about, no matter the situation. Going on in the cloud of big losses calls on us, perhaps even more than the daily challenges of cancer treatment or its aftermath, to grow our gumption and grace. That is how we wrestle with the angel to honor the memory, find the blessing, and keep on going. That is how we open ourselves to the beauty of the world as it’s happening. That’s what makes us weak and strong at the same time.

We carry our stories and losses, our triumphs and heartbreaks, our pasts and futures in our every step. Doing so with gumption and grace points us toward the fierceness of embodying how our lives are our lives, yet softening and opening our hearts to chat regularly with our purpose and callings, and embrace our people, the ones gone, the ones still here, the ones to come.

Bridges

All that year of cancer and surgeries,

of my father’s cancer and death as I held

his knee, of his chemo and mine,

long waits for injections or test results,

I dreamt of bridges – large suspension bridges

I had to scale with my hands or climb over

gingerly with trembling legs.

Slim wooden slats stories above certain

rocks, and always a slat or two

missing in the high wind. Crossing

expansive spaces made of water

or shifting ground, junkyards or rivers,

untold distances to master.

Sometimes there were ways to stop climbing –

a phone call or a plane ticket, another needle

in my forearm, the gleaming ceiling of the

waiting room while the magazine spread itself

across my lap, telling me of other destinations.

Or there was the occasional fall as I sat on the bed,

the fear storming through me like shards

of nightmare, the reaching out for help

from that sensation of going under.

I do not have words big enough for how far I traveled.

I do not have language intimate enough

for how I arrived here, to the world more itself

than it ever was before, tender as the last breath

of my father, fierce as the woman

waking up again on the other side.

Please support my publishers! Get a copy of The Sky Begins At Your Feet at Ice Cube Press here, and you can pick up Reading the Body at the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, KS, or by contacting me at carynmirriamgoldberg@gmail.com. John Willison’s book is here. You can also pick up a copy of My Tree Called Tree: Writing and Living With Serious Illness, which I edited, published by Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing here.

L’Shanah Tova — a Poem for the New Year: Everyday Magic, Day 874

TIMG_0056oday is the last day of the Jewish old year before we roll, at sunset, into the year 5777.

As for this old year, all the beings in my house are tag-team napping.  I’m unfurling from a wicked little cold and sinus deal that has laid me out multiple times during the day for wee little naps.  Natalie, who flew in early this morning on hardly any sleep, and Ken, who is also sleep-deprived, have napped on and off, and of course, the cats and dog do their part of the nap relay race although it’s the opposite of a race. When we wake, we drink iced tea or coconut fizz water on the porch, talk about the mad rant of the blue jay at the moseying cat, and watch a bright and lovely afternoon pass in real time.

In between it all, I marvel at the ease of the day, not much to do until making dinner,  rehearsing a bit more for singing (Natalie) and playing cello (me) with Shiray Shabbat (our little band) tonight at services at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, and eventually donning dressier clothes and driving into town. It’s a beautiful way to transition, sleep and sunshine punctuated by challah, birdsong, a mild breeze, and the smell of a just-mowed lawn, thanks to Ken.

What to do to welcome this changing of the years? Write a poem, so I did:

L’Shanah Tova

A bird in the tree is worth more than its weight in song

in the wind that sheds another layer of the old year

so that the new one can pour, moment by moment, into us.

In the last buzz of bees, cicadas, grasshoppers,

everyone naps, dog and humans, snakes in the sunny field,

and Osage orange leaves in the change already started.

I wake and start to hum, the afternoon steady

as the gravel on the driveway, also rolling through time.

This named time turns as the old wishes for worth or proof,

ashes sparked upward from a dying fire, dissolve.

The new yearnings have yet to land in the absence of hunger.

When I try to imagine, I can only hear the yawn of distant cars

on asphalt while a spider works something out of nothing,

and an airplane miles above and insects stories below

ferry the past out of its confines to the next landing.

Something beyond names or wishes, composed of what composes,

sings its gifts: the gift of waking, the gift of sleeping,

the gift of change and chill, the beauty that passes

like a bird from power line to horizon, the possibility right now

as ever for love to join the chorus.

 

On the Cusp of a Vacation: Everyday Magic, Day 873

The bed is covered in piles of clothes, the hungry suitcases are chomping at the bit, and I’m eager to clean out the car. There’s something immensely satisfying loading a little car with everything from winter coats (never know — it could be snowing on the top of a mountain we’re exploring) to trail mix. Conversely, unloading that car in 10 days isn’t quite the same, but then it’s wonderful to be with cats and dog, birds and changing leaves, and back in our own bed.

As someone who loves planning, often more than what happens after the planning, I’m looking toward cultivating a vacation mindset as soon as we hit I-70. The funny thing about planning a vacation is that when I think I’m going to go out of my mind unless I take a real break from things, planning is a kind of nirvana wishing ground. Then, in peaceful stretches like this one — right before leaving — I realize that while I’m thrilled to be exploring, I’m fine with being here to catch the monarchs starting to come through and the hummingbirds still at the feeders. Those two so-human impulses — the call of the open road, and the song of home — play simultaneously, two radio stations that sometimes harmonize in the distance.

At the same time, adventure and homecoming are two sides of the same falling leaf. I think of this especially when seeing the full moon rise, which will be tonight, and remembering how a friend once told me if I look at the full moon when he’s looking at the full moon, we’ll be connected in our gazing. So wherever the moon is, there we all are! Home beats in the center of our chests and can surround us, a cloak of shelter, wherever we are.

So it’s off to stuff things into suitcases and podcasts onto the iphone as I slide toward leaving tomorrow, and getting things ready for our housesitter and animals.  Yet just like the title of one of Ursula LeGuin’s marvelous novels, I know we’re also Always Coming Home. I wish everyone joy in travel, and in the landing in your own bed again.

A Charm of Teenager Hummingbirds: Everyday Magic, Day 872

A bunch of hummingbirds is called a charm, a delight and an adornment, and for the last few months, I’ve been blessed to have my view delighted and adorned by a charm of hummingbirds. At this time of September, it’s a teenage charm with the ‘rents having gone south already for their tropical vacation, and the kids, some of whom are still hanging out at my place, partying at the sugar-water hanging kegs like there’s no tomorrow.

After a usual summer of a few Ruby-throated hummingbirds hanging out at the edge of woods and near the feeders, right around early September, they seem to multiply overnight on their way south to winter in southern Mexico and northern Panama. My friend Pam, who sat quietly on our front porch with me yesterday to immerse herself n the buzz-chirp-rush of the birds, told me that the full-grown birds take off first, leaving behind the teens, who are old enough to be on their own without causing too much of a ruckus, and happy as the day is long and the feeders are full.

While the ways of the teen are somewhat mysterious in humans, when it comes to hummingbirds, that mystery deepens because of all we don’t know about them. According to some sites I perused, hummingbirds are too little (weighing about 3 grams, smaller for the teens) to carry radio transmitters, and of course, these birds are difficult to catch, handle, and band, let alone recover the banded ones. It also sounds like we just don’t know a lot about their fall migration, except they are very much creatures of habit, returning to the same feeders around the same time each spring, and the males — the ones with the beautiful ruby-colored throats — don’t linger long after mating. What we do know is hummingbirds beat their wings 53 times a second, they weigh between 0.1 and 0.2 an oz., their hearts beat the fastest of all beings — 1260 beats per minute, they can migrate about 1,500 miles in a season, and they make an outrageous amount of song and sound.

As I write this, these tiny, feisty miracles race-buzz by, then suspend themselves mid-air to stare at me, the dog, the cats — who stare back in amazement but are smart enough not to even try to get closer — before shooting off to the feeder. Sometimes there are a dozen or more zipping diagonally past each other from power line to feeder to high branch on the Osage Orange tree back around.  Sometimes they squeak long dialogues before vanishing into the woods with a flash. Each swirl and angle of their flight, each call and wild rush of their wings charms all of us living this porch (and beyond) life.

Listen to their calls and see them swishing around below in the little video I took, and learn more (and hear various kinds of calls) at this fantastic Audubon site and the Cornell All About Birds site.

Your Heart Song: A Poem for Charles Gruber: Everyday Magic, Day 871

IMG_0873Lately I’ve been thinking of my friend Charles Gruber, who died June 15 but left behind an abundance of affection, laughter, stories, and beloveds. So I wanted to share this poem I wrote for him and read at his memorial service after a spring and summer of being lucky enough to be among those close to him at the end of his beautiful life. The title refers to Charles’ favorite Sufi song, “Listen, listen, Listen to My Heart Song,” a chant by Paramahansa Yogananda.

Your Heart Song

for Charles

Listen, listen, listen: how could I ever forget

you with your shining brown eyes, raising your eyebrows

when you bow, hands together at the center of your chest

whenever we meet in an East Lawrence alleyway

or before the glowing dessert case at Wheatfields?

Listen to the lilt of the wind, the hard-won laughter

that comes in the middle of a May afternoon,

when I ask you what dying is like, and we sing

“This Little Light of Mine.” I ask what it means to be

a father, and you sing, “Tickle me once, tickle me twice.”

“Is that what fathering is?”

“How could it be anything but?” you answer.

Listen to Rosie snoring along your side as you try

to catch the words that used to rush through

the river of what you knew, now hidden

in the reeds or thinned to oblivion.

Listen to the stories you tell of Paris hipster lesbians

or Volkswagens with bad mojo, houses no one

or everyone wanted, and mostly, the great loves of your life:

wife, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.

So we listen, wait and listen, and if you fall asleep or forget,

Khabira plays Willie Nelson, the phone rings,

and someone leaves a cherry pie at the front door.

The thunderstorms tell of your enthusiasm for all

that gathers us in a circle and makes us sing,

look into each other’s eyes, and remember.

Listen, listen, listen: your heart song