Category Archives: Embodiment

We’re All Such Delicate Creatures, But At Least We’re In Good Company: Everyday Magic, Day 895

Everyone I know has something hard to live or live with: the everyday heartbreak of going on when a greatly beloved is dead or gone, a scattering of demeaning jobs or not-so-sweet sweethearts, tunnels of depression or roller coasters of anxiety, or chronic illness or cumbersome disabilities. Maybe we’re hard-wired to have an Achilles heel, some weak spot named for Achilles of ancient Greek mythology whose mother, Thetis, dipped him into the Styx river to make him immortal. To keep hold of him, she held him by one heel, which became his vulnerable part.

My Achilles heel is chronic illness, mostly of the sinus-infection-whatever-mystery-virus-is-this-fresh-hell variety. While I’ve struggled since childhood with getting sick more than the average bear, ever since I went through cancer and chemotherapy, this vulnerability has gotten more airtime. I won’t bore you with the long list of conventional, alternative, cutting-edge and/or traditional treatments I’ve sought, and I’m certainly not asking for advice — I have what feels like a good and long-term treatment plan in place now that may lessen the and-she’s-down-again days, and I’m honored to be working with a great integrative physician. But there are days, like this one, when I’m limping around on my Achilles heel.

One problem with vulnerabilities, especially the chronic ones, is that it’s hard to get beyond self-blame, or at least, it’s hard for me. When I get sick, my first impulse is to scan my days for what I did wrong and to feel like I’m failing at life. But this is just the my thinking and thoughts, not reality. What is reality? I’m hardly ever completely sure, which I believe is kind of the essence of intersecting with reality, but I do know that life is far more mysterious than we can fathom. We don’t know what will happen, and by extension, what this symptom or that one truly means all the time. We don’t even know all the details of our life lessons, except that sometimes those lessons are relentless intensives. While I believe very much in the power of healing, and siren song of health, I also know it’s beyond my control to have the ultimate power to fix what ails me, or the world.

Just like I practice the cello, I can keep practicing health like all of us can keep practicing ways to live with our vulnerabilities. Some days, I’ll make a sweet note, and some days, it’ll sound like shit. I can keep aiming toward ideal wholeness, but I have to remember that I’m already whole because being being a little bit broken in some way or another (aka Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in) is what it means to be a whole human.

One of my favorite songs, “That’s What Makes You Strong” by Jessie Winchester, tells us how what makes us weak, what makes us need someone, is what makes us strong. “That’s what moves our souls, and that’s what makes us sing,” the song goes, and I love this version by my friend Kelley Hunt. We are moving mosaics composed of all the pieces, edgy or smooth.

What helps us grow courage and compassion is the everyday Achilles heels of our lives, reminding us that, yes, we are designed by nature to be delicate creatures, and yes, we are also called to work, play and live with the materials life gives us. There never was a river of immortality, just us humans, sharing our stories of falling down and rising down, and in the sharing, remembering that we’re never alone.

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.

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.

A Young Woman in the Land of Yoga: Everyday Magic, Day 867

13268489_1102129356513548_3281435603494530995_oThis weekend, my daughter Natalie will graduate from her yoga teaching training at Your Yoga in Minneapolis, a fine yoga center and school, six years after she first fell for yoga. When I visited with her in June, I found this post I wrote for a non-defunct yoga magazine, and in honor of her upcoming graduation, I share her first immersion into the land of yoga:

A Teenager In The Land of Yoga: 2011

Within the last year, my 18-year-old daughter—who I’d been inviting to come to yoga class with me for years—finally said yes. With a little trepidation for how much she might later make fun of chanting “Hare Krishna” or doing some intensive Pranayama, I drove us to Gopi’s yoga studio in the country where, surrounded by oxen, peacocks and kittens, I somewhat-regularly attend Monday night yoga class. We kicked off our shoes, walked upstairs to the yoga studio and set up mats and blankets.

Living with a pact of teenagers and young adults, I’m so attuned to life in the den of sarcasm that it’s hard to me to imagine reactions from my children that don’t include rolling of the eyes and shaking of the head along with that tell-tail sigh that leads into “Ma….om,” said in two syllables to emphasize how little I know. Which is true, but you don’t want to let onto a bunch of teens that the older you get, the less you actually know about anything anymore, so what little illusion of authority you think you have will be altogether blasted away. Given this, I had to wonder how Natalie would react, especially given the long stretch of chanting in the beginning, how Gopi led us in massaging our own feet, the long and deep forays into sun salutation, the quiet exploration of a mudra with our fingers doing their little gymnastics, and the instructions to imagine the lotus at the center of 13734949_1133197786740038_5973846212292012342_oour hearts, “ever fragrant, ever fresh.” I could see the flatulence jokes on the hoof.

After the 90-minute class, ending with a long corpse pose, we sat up, said “Namaste,” visited a little, and then headed downstairs to shoes, kittens outside longing for affection, and the car. “What did you think?” I asked Natalie as she fastened her seat belt.

“Those kittens are so cute.”

“Yeah, they are, but what did you think about the yoga?”

“I loved it.”

“All of it? Even the chanting and massage?”

“I loved everything about it. It’s the most relaxed I’ve been in months. I’m going to rearrange my work schedule so I can go with you every Monday night.”

Since then, she’s gone off to college, but whenever she’s back home, one of the first questions is when Gopi is teaching the next yoga class. Although she’s not so interested in doing yoga with me at our house, she’s now taking back to college with us an armful of yoga DVDs and a list of local classes to check out. Turns out that sometimes you can lead a horse to water and get her to drink….or in the case of my daughter, lead a teenager—who would otherwise be watching music videos, chatting on Facebook or making a pizza—to yoga where she can and will come home to herself.

13407042_10156953346325484_1123772047341389744_nAround the time I wrote this, I was dipping my toes in, then leaping into the refreshing vistas  of asanas, yamas, niyamas, and other parts of yoga Eight-Fold Path. Six years later, Natalie is wandering that land in everything from crow to corpse post. In between, she’s been sharing her growing love for yoga with others through seeking the clearest words and gestures to teach yoga in the right curve of each moment, both in her yoga teacher training, and in the classes she leads in her living room.

When I first fell in love with yoga, I was in for one of the biggest surprises of my life. Over the years since cancer and some gut calling sent me to the mat, I’ve continued to fall in love all over again with yoga, breath by firey breath, and stretch by heart-opening stretch. Seeing how much yoga gives this young woman, and how much she’s giving others already with her whole being, my wonder is multiplied by joy and contentment. Congratulations, Natalie, and may you continue to walk, sit, stand, and reach in the land of yoga.

Saved (Again) By Music: Everyday Music, Day 860

Celebrating Claudia's birthday at the concert with Michel Loomis
Celebrating Claudia’s birthday at the concert with Michel Loomis

Listening to the astonishingly spirited Claudia Schmidt perform a house concert in Old West Lawrence last night, despite the sauna-esque glow of where I was sitting, I felt tapped on the shoulder to turn around and change. For the last few months, alternately freaking out, napping on the porch, guzzling caffeinated beverages, hugging good friends, complaining, breaking open my heart, talking with Ken while we lie in bed exhausted and overwhelmed, eating too many cookies and other new normals of Deathwatch 2016, I’ve tended to forget that every living moment is not consumed by intensity and crisis. Thankfully, somewhere in the middle of one of Claudia’s songs, reality broke through and said, “Snap out of it, Caryn! It’s just right now.”

Right now varies of course, and lately, it can especially seesaw from a F4 tornado to light-breezed blue-skied views. But right then at the concert, it become abundantly clear that I could drop the 62-pound backpack of grief singing at the speed of emergency, and sit happily on a small folding chair, letting Claudia’s high and low-pitches woos, scatting, and shimmering voice, guitar or dulcimer, and presence of tenderness, freedom, friendship, justice, awareness and welcome shine through me. Each note, each breath, helped me tilt just enough to catch the present and remember how much I love this life, this music, these people, this place, this time even.

Music also holds memories and holds us. When Claudia sang “Hard Love,” I followed the river of the last 35-something years from when I first heard this song, concentrating then as I did last night on the words, “the only kind of miracle that’s worthy of its names/ because the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love.” I also got to talk about that song with Daniel, now 27, but probably a baby when he first heard it, about what hard love can mean. Another song, “These Stairs,” brought me back and forward as I thought about what it means to die at home. “The Strong Women’s Polka,” a newer song she wrote and sang, brought us together in laughter, recognition and singing along with the chorus, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes me you wish you were dead.” It also reminded me of the power of music to knock us into hysterics, the happy kind, and make community out of audiences and performers.

Music has saved me all my life, from the first songs my mother sang me that made me feel less fear and more beauty, to what I’m listening to right now, “When the Deal Came Down,” a song I co-wrote with Kelley Hunt sung by Kelley right here. This morning in the bath, I listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s gorgeous rendition of “10,000 Miles,” which imbued the movie “Fly Away Home” with deep waves of healing and homecoming. I cycle through long stretches of the guys too: Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Leonard Cohen as well as more show tunes than perhaps a person should ingest in a day. On the way to town today, I was thrilled to hear Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” music that picks me up and puts me back down as a more coherent human. Altogether, music reminds me that I’m a buzzing, changing, churning and rhythmic body held in the larger body of community and the earth.

Music — just as the song Kelley and I wrote, “Music Was the Thread” — has held together my story and held me together continually, a heartbeat sounding in the background and center of life as I know it. Here is a poem I wrote in the last year about that thread:

The Thread

 

My mother singing “Tora Lora Lora,”

the Irish lullaby even though we were Brooklyn Jews.

The vacuum on the shag carpet. The singular birch

shaking over the hapless window sill. The humming refrigerator.

The chants encasing me in each swayed note as I wrapped

my thin arms around my cold chest in the cavernous synagogue.

The creak of the swing as I turn horizontal, defying gravity

in the static of the transistor radio. The loud slap on the bass notes

of the body that make bruises, then the slow breath

of forgiveness, pacing until the danger is gone.

All the possibilities in each library novel about a girl,

afraid at the start, but about to do something

to swirl the calm pond of her life. The first kiss in the back

of the school bus broken by applause. The sound of thunder,

an interior roar like hunger. The old staccato of my father’s anger

before it dissolved into the tenderness of defeat.

The way some mornings rev up like motorcycles

coming point blank toward us. The exhaling speed

of rivers, starving for new ground, or betrayed

by sudden shorelines that break the water into remembering

willows. Bike tires on wet pavement, downhill,

at dawn. The happy rhythm of the subway rocking my spine

in and out of alignment with the dark as we tunneled

through water back to air, the miracle of one rushing animal

carrying us all. This buzzing body ferrying millions of cells into sound.

For the Claudia Schmidt concert, big thanks to Burdett and Michel Loomis for hosing us in their beautiful home, Bruce and Peggy Kelly for bringing Claudia (and bringing her back to Kansas!), Kat for all the home-made goodies, and for hauling in and out many chairs and a big sound system, Forest, Daniel, Thomas, Bruce, Burdett and others. Bouquets of gratitude to Claudia too!

Digging into What’s Mine to Chill Out the Fixer-Bee: Everyday Magic 856

IMG_0857As an obsessive fix-it bee with a minor in thinking other people’s and organization’s problems are my emergencies, I have a hard time figuring out what’s mine and what’s not mine. Take a hot bath when I’m stressed? Mine. Write my young adult kid’s research paper? Absolutely not mine. But then there’s the middle ground where all gets blurry. Yup, it seems reasonable to proof-read one of my kid’s essays or help promote projects for organizations I’m involved in, but when crisis shows its sunburned face, I can easily forget myself.

In the past week, because I was on a mini vacation (when the shit always seems to especially hit the fan), I kept bumping into my overly-inflated sense of responsibility and, even more to the point, false sense of control. I’d answer the phone or open an email, and voila! I was off to the races about how to address the crisis at hand. It didn’t help that some of those nearest and dearest to me were calling in real crisis, asking for advice, which did seem like mine to give. But beyond the advice, those burdens weren’t mine to carry and resolve. Coming home, I ran into more messes that needed clean-up, and the distinct refrains in my mind, “Not mine” and “Step away from the mess.”

Years of being the only one still at work at 1 a.m. to fix a collective hiccup when everyone else is putting their feet up and watching Netflix has taught me something along with recent run-ins with people like me who are far more controlled by this tendency. Such encounters show me the damage of over-responsibility. Burnt-out people tend to be bitter, anxious, and not so pleasant to share enchiladas with. Most of all, I’ve been trained by my body which has a global-sized talent for getting sick when I run myself into the ground. A sinus infection for six weeks? A strange case of vertigo? A foot injury that makes it hard for me to move forward without hobbling? This body can pull the breaks on over-functioning on a dime, and in the long run, I’m grateful.

Yesterday, fed up with my habitually pushed buttons, I took to the garden. Thanks to our friend Jim building us two beautiful raised beds that needed dirt, and dirt that needed to be moved, I had the perfect diversion away from what’s not mine. I shoveled for half an hour in the morning and another half hour in the evening, interspersed with bouts of weeding and raking. There’s nothing like gardening to get clear on just about everything in life, especially all that’s beyond our understanding. Being a full-body experience, especially the shoveling part, it works on me like yoga (which I also did yesterday): it’s hard and encompassing enough that I can’t think about solutions for problems that belong to others.

The more dirt I moved and smoothed, the more I came back to the real work that belongs to me. Covered in dirt, tired and sweating, I walked to the house afterwards at dusk, ready to wash off all that wasn’t mine. Soon, I start planting what’s mine in the process and harvest, waving at the worms along the way, showering off the chiggers looking for a new home, and remembering more of who I am and am not.

What’s So Good About Being Sick? Everyday Magic 895

Sometimes the body says, “Stop!” in the most eloquent language it can, a slim intuition that lands sweetly in the center of our attention, and gently redirects us. Other times, particularly with people like me who tend to pack in, pile on, and shoehorn in too much on occasion, the body speaks with far more force and dread. Welcome to my little cycle of illness lately, a not-horrible-not-great cold that turned into an ear infection that triggered two weeks of dizzying vertigo (and driving around with bottles of ginger ale in easy reach) ,then opened into a terrible-you’re-not-leaving-the-house and cold-medicine-hardly-touches this kind of cold. It’s a little like the Rube Goldberg contraption of an illness.

Now that I’m emerging, enough to wander some aisles of Home Depot without lurching for my bed, I’ve been thinking about what’s so good about being sick. As someone with a talent for picking up poetic inspiration, and viruses, I should know already, but when the chips are down, I immediately have to negotiate with the crazy things my mind tells me, which range from “Oh no! The world is ending!” to “This is all your fault.” Luckily, a good bout of illness is a great leveler, and a few days of lying around, mildly hallucinating in between downing wellness capsules and Tylenol usually sets me right again.

Getting sick isn’t what I think it is even if it does necessitate missing a conference and concert. It just is. When I think of the people I work with who have truly serious and chronic illness at Turning Point, I see this up close. Some of us are dealt very difficult hands in this life through no fault of our own: M.S. or metastatic cancer, or Parkinson’s or brain injury. There’s a lot to be said about what’s bad in such cases, but judging oneself for coming down with some rare neurological disorder isn’t helpful or appropriate. While a bad cold is a drop in the ocean compared to such serious illnesses, I remind myself that illness is a perfect time to put judgments on the shelf for a bit. Of course this can go too far at moments (Eating too many cookies? What the hell! I’m sick!), but overall, having the pause button hit on my life is just that: a time to stop, take care, burrow into the blankets, practice slower breathing, and catch up on some old movies.

I know it’s dualistic and limiting thinking to label things good or bad — my friend Stephen often reminds me, “Bad news….good news, good news…..bad news.” We don’t often know what we’re getting into or what it means right off the bat, so along those lines, I would say that having to travel only from bed to chair with a good supplies of tissues and cough drops isn’t a horrible thing. Sure, I felt horrible, but then I remember how time and my bodies are remarkable, shifting from one thing to another with surprising grace even if I’m kicking and screaming all the way.

So what’s so good about getting sick?  I grow my compassion a quarter inch more for people who deal with much worse stuff more of the time (“Worse things have happened to nicer people,” my friend Linda remarked the other day). I fall in love a drop more with the purpling clouds, right now, banked over the setting sun. I spend a whole lot more time with my animals, lounging in our small herd on couches or beds. I get to be and be still. And I get to get well.

When the Ocean is There, Jump In: Everyday Magic, Day 875

IMG_0511Yesterday, I jumped into the Gulf of Mexico in my clothes because it was there, the water was shining and warm, and occasionally I’m no fool. Today, I waded into the Atlantic Ocean, this time with in a bathing suit thanks to my mom reminding me I might want a towel (which made me remember that the swimsuit is also a nifty idea).

Living in Kansas, where both swimming in salt water, let alone oceans, and seeing dolphins (which I saw both days) is usually something only accomplished through lucky dreamed sleep, I didn’t want to let all that seawater slip away from my skin, let alone the wild and swift rolling surface. Today, Ken and I were slammed by wave after wave coming up behind me. Sometimes we jumped in time, sometimes the rush of salt water soaked our heads at high speed. Whatever the case, I felt more than my body lifting toward shore and pulled back out by the undertow. Although I could be bias from having grown up near the shore — close to Coney Island in Brooklyn, and later the Jersey shore — I believe our beings have evolved with a yearning to home in when it comes to large bodies of water.

Such bodies also help me remember my own in the literal meaning of remember: to bring back together our extending-outward members (legs, arms) to the oneness we are individually, and in the case of breathing, swimming, or otherwise interacting with the world, the oneness we are with this planet. When I walked into the quiet Gulf waters yesterday, everything blue lit gold by the light, I was a little frightened to lean forward into swimming, which is a lot like leaning forward in a dream so that we can fly. Maybe it was the baby shark we saw a fisherman tossing back in earlier, but I suspect it was simply that process of forgetting and remembering ourselves at once in surrendering to such a large being: the life force of ocean. Once I did, my feet were hesitant to reach for the ground again.IMG_0483

Today, each wave that broke right before it gathered me up, and each wave that rose me up in its breaking felt like what it was: such a gift. Two days, two bodies of water that are really one (not to mention all those the water gives life to in the sea and land), and I can still taste the salt on my fingers. Within a few days, back in the prairies, which once were an inland ocean, I’ll remember this, and as best I can, keep remembering myself back together.

 

“It’s Not Just a Body; It’s An Adventure”: Everyday Magic, Day 753

This is what a dear friends of mine said about having a kidney removed today. The kidney had to go because it harbored a tumor, and the only reason he knew about the tumor was because of emergency heart surgery a few months ago. One danger led to one miracle. Given just how mortal we are, and how much we know this up close and personally as we age, the adventure can shift to high gear on a dime.

I’ve been thinking about the adventure of  being a body, more than usual lately as I prepare myself for upcoming surgery to repair my hiatal hernia, and in the process, hopefully solve a bevy of medical issues related to where my esophagus meets my stomach. My issues started with pregnancy (short-waisted woman + big baby = trouble in River City) and escalated during chemotherapy. The oncoming surgery circles me back 25 years to when this body went from party of one to party of two; it makes another loop back to fighting off a totally different kind of intruder.

To take a break from worrying about surgery and its aftermath, I went to see the play Shrek at Theatre Lawrence, and laughed and cried myself silly at what this performance said about accepting who we are. Just five hours later, during the evening performance, the talented young actor who played Donkey collapsed because of a heart attack in the middle of a song. Subsequently, he was put in a medically-induced coma for several days. Today, I read in the paper how he came back without any apparent brain or heart damage, and my own heart soared in relief. I remembered Ken and my intense joy and relief when our youngest son was woken out of a medically-induced coma 13 years ago, and how his return from his outer-rim adventure saved our lives in ways that keep unfolding.

Life gives us this adventurous vessel in which and to which anything can happen — for ourselves and those we love. As my kids grew up, I learned about surprises of the body often, including epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, something called Intussusception (when the small intestine telescopes into the large intestine) and even head trauma. In any family, if you give it enough time, the surprise of ailments can astonish, but so can the resilience we grow in the process.

Being a body, even in less drastic times, is hardly ever a walk in the park. Sometimes, it’s a combo safari/water park/cruise ship during a thunderstorm/ice storm on roller skates kind of journey, each turn thrilling, exhilarating, terrifying and utterly human. This is the ultimate ride, and it’s extreme sports all the way at moments. Looking ahead to my surgery, I tell myself to exhale, strap myself in tight, and take in all the love around me. After all, it’s not just a body; it’s life in all its most tender and expansive adventures.

Beauty, Balance, Forgiveness, Forgiveness: Everyday Magic, Day 726

Swimming across the blue-green quarry pond in Vermont last week, and lately across the turquoise city pool in Kansas, I’ve found myself moving to a new chant with each breast stroke: beauty, balance, forgiveness, forgiveness.

Beauty is for all the beauty around us all the time, including the beauty of the water holding me up and yielding to let me pass through it. Beauty speaks to what I live to experience as a body in a body of water held in the body of earth and air. The light turning this way and that on the surface of pond or pool. The clouds scattering apart slow motion. The tops of trees only slightly tilting in a wind above that’s not yet below.

Balance speaks to what I experience when held lightly and freely in the water and also to what I seek in dry land living too. The balance that has to readjust itself when running uphill in the wind or trying to lie still enough late at night to catch the sleep train. The balance to perceive whatever is or isn’t happening two ways at once: as I experience it in the moment, habitual responses charged or not, and as it unfolds when viewed from another, and often wider, perspective.

Forgiveness twice. Why is that? I’m not sure, but I know it has to be twice, and I wonder if it’s because I want forgiveness for myself and all others, or forgiveness from self-imposed stupidities as well as the kinds of missteps that cause any harm to others. Or maybe it’s about asking what we ask for during Rosh Hashana — to be inscribed in the Book of Life — and also what we ask for during Yom Kimppur — to be sealed in the Book of Life.

So I swim into beauty, balance, forgiveness, forgiveness — each stroke a way to pull myself forward and thank my body and all the other bodies of this earth that make such grace possible.