Sunday, October 9, 2016

...A Rocky Road

“A rocky road.”  That seems like an understatement of where I've been and where I am today.  What is it about rocks?  They don't (usually!)  fall from the sky; they are already there, waiting to catch our toe and make us stumble. A lot of rocks, gravel or a streambed, make for very unsteady footing -- one has to step lightly and be nimble, ready to shift weight and take quick steps to keep from falling. Little rocks keep us on our toes, metaphorically and literally, and big rocks can trip us up.  Then there are the boulders -- so big we have to climb over or find a way around them.

Rocky roads are prone to landslides and washouts, even avalanches. A tiny pebble or patch of snow and ice breaks loose and tumbles downhill, really following the path of least resistance, gathering more rocks or snow, until it becomes a devastating force of nature; one we cannot stop or even survive if we are in its path.

This last year has been like the aftermath of a rockslide.  Forces of nature that I could not anticipate or control swept over the smooth path of the life that I had planned. The path I was on is blocked by boulder, and it is now lost to me. The paths around the boulder look like mine fields, full of unseen hazards and pitfalls. Every step is a choice and a new direction.

Many years ago, Jim, Kevin, and I visited Hawaii. We walked lava flows that looked like lunar scenes, black and barren, devoid of life, even in the form of bugs or birds. Those are landscapes one wants to hurry to cross over, seeking the comfort of life on the other side. The early months after a catastrophic loss are like that.  I remember feeling like I had landed on the moon, on a dark and unfriendly surface where everything familiar was missing.

How does one navigate such a desolate path?  Step lightly and move carefully forward, believing that there is a path, however hard to see. 

Know that this is a temporary touch down, not a permanent landing. Believe that there is more, that this path will lead you to a different place, not the same place you were before, not better or worse, just different.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Treasures from the Sea

I love to walk on the beach and look at what the ocean has scattered on the sand. 

Sand dollars and wave patterns show us their rhythmic beauty. I see many fragments and pieces, but it takes a long time to find one that is perfect.  So graceful and symmetrical.

 A little research tells me that sand dollars are the shells of flattened, burrowing sea urchins. It also tells me that sand dollars that are dark in color and have hair-like cilia on their surface may still be alive and should be left in place. 

I collected a couple of shells that were perfect and whole, but clearly not alive; then I saw another shell that was broken. 

I could see the internal structure that gives the shell its strength to withstand all the battering of the waves and tides. 

There is another kind of beauty in this brokenness, the lacy delicacy of ribs and space.   

As Leonard Cohen said, 

“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” 

 I've heard that a broken bone that has healed is stronger at that spot than before.  I wonder if that is true for our hearts and souls? It's like the difference between new wood and weathered pine -- both are beautiful in their own way. 




Friday, August 12, 2016

The Gift within the Storm

More than anything, this past year has taught me to value time.  I am constantly asking myself, “What would I regret most if my time suddenly ran out? And how can I use my time to avoid having that regret?” The thing that I most value, and the thing that brings me the most peace, is writing.  But it’s so easy to get caught up in my daily routine and “to do” list and let time get away from me once again. Since I’m so task-oriented, I joined a writing workshop.  Having a weekly “assignment” and deadline helps me to focus, and the members of the group are a great source of encouragement and support.  A recent assignment was based on The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler,  a delightful book that personifies qualities as characters.  Here’s my personification of the emotion that has been my most recent companion.


Grief is Love’s shy twin.

You meet Love first, and she invites you to dance with her.

As you dance, you can see Grief waiting in the shadows,

but you think, “Not now, not me.”

Grief is patient; she waits quietly, almost out of sight.

She can wait a lifetime.

But when Love has had her dance and her day,

Grief will come to you.

She has waited long enough,

and now it is her time.

She has grown strong in her waiting,

she rages like a storm,

and she can destroy everything.

For a while, all you can do is huddle in her path,

praying that she will soon pass by.

Sometimes she is quiet and you might think she is gone,

but it is only the calm at the eye of the storm,

which soon begins again.

Still, nothing lasts forever, not even Grief.

You will survive, but you must find shelter;

your friends, your family, your faith

will be your safe place, the place where you wait

and grow strong, strong enough to stand in the

storm and tears that are Grief.

Finally the storm passes.

When you emerge from your safe place,

you see a different landscape, one that has been

scoured by the storm

one that has been washed clean

of all that is shallow or trivial.

Only the things that have strong foundations remain.

Grief has worn out her power,

but she and her twin, Love, will remain with you.

Both can be your friend. 

August 5, 2016

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Angels Among Us

So here's the deal.  I saw the movie "Michael."  It is one of my favorites, but I never took it literally -- that angels are sent to help us fix our lives and make sure we don't miss the opportunities that God has provided for us.  As Michael himself said, "I'm not that kind of angel."  In my belief system, he/she is not that kind of God.  But maybe there's a different way of looking at this. 

Early this spring, I had committed to walking Bloomsday with a friend. It just so happened that Bloomsday fell on the Sunday after I finished my chemotherapy.  I had been having a lot of fatigue from that, and typically, Saturday and Sunday were my worst days.  So I was a little nervous about finishing Bloomsday this year.
As usual, I took the shuttle bus down to the event.  This year I got there early because the buses were not as busy as in previous years, and I had walked right on to a bus that left 5 minutes later. The street where we were to line up for the start was mostly empty, just a few clusters of walkers waiting in the sunny spots, trying to stay warm.  There's a kind of camaraderie in that kind of setting, and I started talking to a young woman standing near me.  My obvious chemo hairstyle breaks down a lot of barriers with meeting people.  She is a mammography technician, and so we talked about breast cancer diagnosis and survivor stories.  Her love for her job and compassion for her patients radiated in her face and attitude.  She told me a story of two patients diagnosed within days of each other, treated on the same day, side by side in the recovery room.  One, her friend, had a positive attitude and was focused to fight her battle for life, the other, a stranger, was fearful and focused on her victim status, saying "I just can't deal with this."  The friend is still alive, but the stranger is not. This story supported the research I've read, that, in addition to the traditional medical treatments, other healing practices, like an anti-inflammatory diet, exercise, and spiritual practices, make a verifiable, significant difference in survival rates.  And that having a positive attitude is very important.

This woman was not sporting wings and a halo, but her message to me was clear. We never exchanged names, and after she left me to join the porta-potty line, I never saw her again.  Shortly after that, another woman wearing a baseball cap over her head-wrap introduced herself to me.  She is battling a different type of breast cancer, and is in the middle of her chemo.  She had no one to walk with, and I invited her to join me and my friends.  She ended up setting a brisk pace and left us behind in her dust after the first mile.  There was another message – “you can do this. Other women in the same circumstances are doing this.” 

So my premise is this:  there ARE angels among us.  I'm not saying that a wise and bearded patriarchal God is summoning ethereal winged beings and directing them to us in moments of need.  I don't think he/she is kind of God and they are not that kind of angels.  What I believe is that the energy, wisdom, and power that is our Universe knows us and what we need and where we are headed.  That seeming randomness engages real humans as its own "secret agents" to help each other as we are all trying to grow and evolve. If we watch and listen, we will see and hear these angels and we can be those angels for each other.

Here's the last little bit that "sealed the deal" for me.  Recently I was at my medical office waiting for an appointment with the doctor who is overseeing my radiation therapy.  I saw a woman who reminded me of a friend and former colleague.  I doubted myself, because the woman I knew was a 10-year survivor and, as far as I knew, was in perfect health.  Sometimes people in that setting need their space and privacy, so I didn't speak.  This woman already had lost her hair, so I assumed she was already doing chemo. That didn't match with the person I knew. But I couldn't escape the feeling that I knew her. After she left for her appointment, I checked Facebook and saw some subtle clues that something was going on.  I messaged her, and later we connected.  She was indeed going through an unusual and complicated diagnosis.  I was able to share my experiences about the chemo process and be supportive of her. Our meeting seems more than oddly coincidental. I can't help thinking that I might be, in some small way, an angel for her. This dear friend very suddenly lost her husband while she is in the middle of her cancer battle. I am grateful that she reached out to me and that I was able to support her in that time of need.
So, that's what I think.  We are not alone; we are not stumbling through life on our own.  There are "hints and allegations" as Paul Simon says.  "Angels in the architecture" of our lives.  We can help each other through this. This is the token I have been handing out to some of the angels in my life.  It serves to remind me that I never know when I will be called to be an angel to someone.