So I have a website…

IMG_5625

I have a few, in fact. Sometimes I forget about them for, um, years, and then remember that I used to put my thoughts down on the page over here. Sometimes it’s difficult to want to write about my life. For a few years, I’ve been mulling over the fact that a few things that seemed eternally hopeful about life just — aren’t.

I’ve been reaching to Buddhism lately to fold in a lot of what’s going on around me.

A few weeks ago, at 2 AM on a quiet Sunday morning while I was asleep, 49 people five miles away from my bedroom were murdered. How do you fold that into life as if it’s ordinary?

Dave and I had a few tough discussions about it. I felt anguished, and said that it was hard to see my way to hope about our family, the future, the world, when horrific events happen in our very neighborhood. My first reaction to the shooting was that I wanted to hole up in my house, never let my kid out of my sight, and build a wall around us so that we’d always be safe.

“This is not isolated,” Dave said gently. “This is reality. This is reality for most of the world’s population. They have to get up and go on living no matter what might happen to them, and so do we.”

A tough lesson, but a true one. I’m still folding it into my heart, though, and into my head. Sometimes, after a beer or two, when I feel relaxed, I realize just how close to tears I am — at life, at the unbearable danger of it, the inevitable reality that we all shut down, close up, stop interacting with the world, and, well, die.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates Buddhist scripture as saying:

“Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the beloved is stressful, separation from the beloved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful.”

When a huge, horrific situation happens, it’s an immediate reminder that all of the things in life that are impermanent are exactly that — impermanent. So what can we do about it?

The first of the four noble truths is just saying, “Now that I’m alive, everything is definitely going to make me suffer.” Things that can cause you to suffer and change and think and process will absolutely make you do these things. It’s ridiculous to think that the phrase “happily ever after” exists, and it’s only in our imagination and dreams that it does. This isn’t pessimism so much as realism. Life is not fixed and forever, things are actively falling apart, entropy wins every time.

The second and third Noble Truths say that because we accidentally think of impermanent things as permanent, we cling to them and expect them to be around forever, and they inevitably hurt us when they aren’t. All that’s necessary is to remember that this thing we cling to, we’ve already lost. Be realistic about life, and the things you’ve been clinging to can be given up more easily.

OK, not really, because there are things that it’s impossible to not cling to. I guess this makes detachment the work of a lifetime, or a few of them.

That last noble truth actually branches into eight — a plan for how to live so that we can better handle life. The philosophy is called the eight-fold path, but I think that the most interesting part of it is the seventh step, mindfulness (Sati is the word for it in Pali; Smriti in Sanskrit).

It means accepting life as it is now, rather than the way we think it should be. 49 people were murdered near my house on a quiet Sunday morning at 2 AM. This is a part of the fabric of reality now. So I’m going to try to focus on the moment.

I am here in this world right now, and maybe focusing on what I still have will help me take better care of it.

13391071_596863360489500_955984414_n

 

Advertisements

Joss Whedon made me think today

I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”

– Joss Whedon, 2013 commencement address to Wesleyan

1982

I adored Joss Whedon’s commencement address, especially the way that he framed it by death. Right now, this year, and perhaps every year since I had a child and got cancer, I’ve been feeling that my body frames my ambition.

Two weeks ago my mom sent over some boxes that she’d carefully kept from my teen years. I opened them up and it felt like giving me the gift of myself, or of a forgotten self. I saw a person full of energy and curiosity. It’s been nice to remember, nice to look at the photographs of a girl in the middle of a welter of new experiences and see who she was. Even my old fantasy novels felt comfortable to my hand, it felt like home to pick them up and see all the worlds I lived inside of books, as much a part of my childhood as actually living.

It was strange to think about all the changes that have happened to me since.

2013

Having a child was an enormous change to my body. It made me realize that bodies have a lot more in common with compost heaps than with angels. Having cancer compounded this. After a reasonably invulnerable time in my 20s and 30s, cancer made me realize how much energy humans have to spend making sure their bodies are working right. It’s a little ridiculous to think about the sheer amount of self-absorption that this forces me to have (thank god insurance finally proved useful), but it’s also a good reality check. In this moment between my 30s and the rest of my life, it’s good to know that I’m already broken in to the inevitable.

Turning 40 feels like a fresh start, but one touched by the knowledge that Joss shares. I’m realizing that ambitions are something that might not ever be achieved, that accomplishment is often delayed until it becomes impossible, that the body in middle age cannot handle the dreams of the young. What’s left? A good fucking sense of humor.

So once you get here, halfway through (if you’re lucky), facing age — what then? For most of my 20s I did not pick up the strands of family and place woven around me. I took it all very lightly, and moved lightly through the world. At age 40, these bonds seem as necessary as they once were unnecessary.

Happy Memorial Day to those that are gone.

But Joss’s words helped me think through a lot of this, a lot of the feelings of being constrained by the body, by reality, by: “The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.”

I’ve lived a huge contradiction, and I am the result of it. I don’t have the luxury of having chosen a clean path, and I’ve wasted a fair bit of time doing shit-all (it was fun!), but in the process perhaps I picked up the bits of a dream-rich but people-starved childhood and wove in love and friendships, and healed myself a great deal. Have I actually achieved anything? Who knows.

Maybe that was all necessary too, part of becoming this person with cancer, with a child, with a family, with a job, with a garden.

Herb garden likes the rain!

Or perhaps, as Joss says, nobody is ever meant to find peace, but will always be struggling with the ache inside of themselves as they come to terms with everything that “I” means, or as Joss says:

This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.

Yeah.

Dinosaurs and cyborgs

Last night's sunset

.

This weekend I saw a lot of beauty.

I saw Dinosaur Ridge, archaeology made real and present. I saw bones, almost the consistency of amber, embeded in rock, from one of the first places on earth where dinosaur bones were discovered.

I could see how easy it was to discover, too, because the continental plates collided and lifted up history so that it was bare to our eyes. All that history could be read easily, thick rocky layer after thick rocky layer, from where it jutted at an angle for the rain and wind and snow to lay clean.

Up in the mountains, walking into the clear sky, I saw such a different world than I’m used to. The Rocky Mountains are no swamp, and it reminded me of the perspective changes of my childhood, driving from the rainy and sleepy town of Hilo — out of the clouds — and up the volcano into the sun.

Old Geologists never die.

.

Denver is beautiful! Watching my dad roll his wheelchair with determination around the edge of a cliff was even more beautiful.

Eating a fine meal of Moroccan food with him was  just lovely, especially when he told a tale of traveling in Afghanistan and eating boiled sheep’s head in the tent of a local.

Being with him helped me think through a lot of prejudices, and see a lot of prejudices.

One more photo before I pass out for the night. Seriously, it's tough keeping up with dad!

.

There was a moment at Craig Center when I realized what it was like to be dehumanized.

For a little while, whenever I passed a wheelchair-bound person in the halls of the medical center, I’d automatically avert my eyes, for no good reason that I can discover within myself. Was it my own inability to figure out my emotional reaction, or perhaps a faux-politeness to allow a person his or her own emotional space?

But then I caught the strangely ashamed look of a person that I walked by without acknowledging, his eyes cast down as if to bear the lack of a human gaze. I realized that not looking at someone is the opposite of affirming their life. I realized that my reaction was more about me than them, and I focused on truly looking at the wheeled people, into their eyes so that I could smile and say hello and treat them like any other human.

After that, it became easier to comprehend that we’re simply lucky nowadays.

It is so beautiful here that I wish a real photographer like @qwistlove would come photo it.

.

We’re able to become cyborgs much more than we ever have before. Those people whose bodies have stopped functioning in one way or another, but who can keep the important parts of themselves alive through machines, wheels, things that give them freedom, they are a rudimentary wave of cyborgs. I remember stories of one person with an external heart, one person with a mechanical arm. We’re reinventing ourselves with technology, but remaining human within — but only if we can can treat technologically-assisted humans as human.

I spoke to a woman whose husband has been a quadriplegic for 30 years. The woman used all kinds of slang to refer to people’s conditions. “I met a little five year old boy who tripped on his shoelaces and became a partial quad,” she said. “That man over there is a para.” There’s a culture, and it’s strong at Craig, with its own language and connections and emotions.

Me, dad, and the girl (Emma) holding his knees up. Much harder than it looks.

.

Next week, my dad moves away from Denver and the fine facilities and supportive staff who help him get used to his body and keep him feeling human. I hope this transition is easy, and that Hilo can open itself wide to take back a beloved adopted citizen.

I’m with him in my mind. I’ll try to journey with him as best I can.

Sometimes the body needs to complain

I woke up allergic to myself. Swelling from the inside, coughing up a bunch of phlegm. Days like today I remember that chemotherapy only begins when they inject it in me. It keeps going until it’s out of my system entirely.

So here I sit at work, popping Sudafed, trying to focus. The coughing comes and goes, but mostly my body feels tired everywhere. It feels tired on the inside, as if all my cells are working extra hard to make everything function as usual.

I admit that I dislike doing this to my body. I work on health for the space between treatments, and then willingly sit in the chair to knock myself back. All of us with cancer are faced with this, our foe is inside of our own body, we battle ourselves to see who wins.

In the chemotherapy chair last Friday I sat beside an old man whose wife hovered over him anxiously. She fed him bananas, yogurt, vitamins, rice stew, anything to get him to eat. “He doesn’t want to eat anymore,” she said to me anxiously. “How do you keep healthy between treatments?”

“Every body is different. Whatever his body needs and wants,” I replied.  “I hope you can find it.”

My stomach doesn’t play nice between treatments either, and the less I eat for a few days, the better. Due to the nature of my cancer, digestion takes second place to coping with the treatment, and this gets uncomfortable. Still, I use what natural remedies I can, and sometimes it almost feels like a familiar (if slightly masochistic) routine.

What do I eat? Ginger, in all forms. Ginger tea, ginger candy. Khow mun gai (Thai rice cooked with ginger topped with chicken and ginger sauce). Ginger on top of ginger, but just enough to get me by. Then, I drink protein-rich smoothies, and when my stomach burbles in protest, ginger ale. Mint occasionally helps too, but not as much.

When the bloated and puffy feelings begin to subside, I try my best to exercise, a little each day. Yoga helps my joints so that I don’t get gout, and walking helps me reconnect to the world in my own ritual.

The new house is restful, and my family does what they can. I’m blessed in all kinds of ways, and sometimes counting all of these blessings is what helps most until my body bounces back enough for me to breathe again.

A green and muddy space

photo 13

(All of these photos were kindly taken for us by Kasia Momot!).

This past Saturday I looked out into my backyard and saw a lot of filthy children playing with sticks and wallowing in mud. I recalled long summer afternoons in the countryside of upstate New York doing the same, and felt such a sense of peace. I guess I’d never really thought about the creative kid space that owning a tree and some dirt would bring, but now I do, and it’s awesome.

We’re in our house, and I guess (universe willing) this is where we’ll be!

.

photo 12

photo 11

photo 3

photo 1 photo 14