Crossing the Threshold: A Cancer Survivors Tribute to Inauguration

WA.jpgThey say people react with a wide range of emotions to a life changing diagnosis, the loss of a loved one or other devastating news.  But no matter if we externally emote with tears, rage, and wailing or internally go AWOL, the blueprint of being struck by grief is always the same:  Life as we know it ceases to exist in an instant.   We lose what we thought to be solid ground under our feet and suddenly and without warning find ourselves suspended in midair, terrified and bracing for impact.

To many the election outcome still feels like a dream, a nightmare they desperately wish to awaken from.   As people who have walked through the fire of our own irrevocably changed lives, those of us who have been touched by cancer know a thing or two about the landscape of this territory, and I believe we have a responsibility to speak out, to partner the despair of our times with the hard gained wisdom of our cracked open hearts.

What do we know about how to live in midair, suspended?  We know that it is important to give ourselves time and space to process in our own unique way.  That there is no right or wrong way to do this.  When diagnosed with cancer, some fall silent, and others need to scream.  Some retreat to dreamless and numbing sleep while others lay awake during the long hours of night, reliving every memory of their lives.  In much the same way, we are seeing a multitude of reactions from people right now, that are reeling in post election territory.  Some feel the need for direct action, and take to the streets in protest.  Others are are called to turn within, deepening their dharma practices.  Some feel depression and despair, others experience rage.  The options are endless, and there is no need to let them be divisive.  Instead, may we behold them for what they are, a testimony to the wide range of unique expression of our humanness.

Whether the election shook you to the bone or you had already been living on the edge for a while, well aware of our species pushing the limits of their expansion on this planet on so many levels, it is undeniable that the paradigm of our old world is crumbling.  Really, we have had our diagnosis for a while.  With the earth atmosphere heated up to critical dimensions, climate change has begun to cause droughts, hurricanes, and floods, while resources like clean drinking water are no longer readily available for millions of earth citizens.  War, poverty, and hunger are forcing major migrations of traumatized peoples and families from their homelands, disconnecting them from their ancestral and cultures roots and urging western world nations to share resources and make room for the displaced.  Eco systems are dying and landscapes are changing.  And the changes are not just external.  Many are deeply confused and scared as our old values lose meaning and new ways of defining ourselves have begun to arise in parts of our collective consciousness, from gender to race, to religion and science.  How we identify as humans is changing and we are steeping in the creative chaos of birthing a new awareness that is challenging traditional believes and values that were home to us for many generations.

So it’s not surprising that in the liminal state of fear and confusion of this time people in this country (and not only in this country) would elect a leader that promised to make them feel safe again, by building walls, dividing and discriminating in the desperate attempt to go back to the illusive reality of the ‘good old days’ (though many of us may have a different memory about our recent past all together).  Defying science with emotional truth, and replacing facts with false news, Trump seems to want to reassure us that ‘the earth really is flat’, and his message is appealing to those parts within ourselves that still want to hold on to the old paradigm. There is no doubt that the trifecta of capitalism, sexism and racism ultimately compromises all of us, no matter our social status, sex, gender or race, and it seems clear that it has outlived any purpose it may have had in human development.  But at the same time it is also familiar and predictable.  And human attachment to the familiar is strong, even if it is familiar suffering, which is why it often wins over the terror of the unknown…

As a species on this blue planet, spinning in space, we are pushing our limits on all levels.  The potential of the death and demise of our civilization speaks clearly to the paradoxical ripeness of our times.  It’s time to die to our old way of living, if we don’t want to die from it.  Yes, we have cancer.  We are suffering of a life threatening condition, that, if it goes untreated, will lead to premature death.  So what, if any, is our path to healing?

If we want to stay with the metaphor of cancer, we have to remember that it is a cellular disease.  Cancer cells have forgotten that they are part of a bigger organism.  The main difference to healthy cells is that they lose their innate capacity for aptosis, a programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms to protect the integrity of the whole.  Without this ability of turning into their death, shutting themselves down, when they are somehow compromised and no longer benefitting  sthe whole, cancer cells atrophy into a kind of reptilian survival mode that no longer supports the very organism they were designed to serve.  Instead, they develop their own agenda, walling themselves off from the rest, and, barring intervention, creating an empire of unregulated growth that will only collapse once it has completely destroyed the host and the entire organism dies.

Sound familiar?  Human addiction to unbridled, relentless, and short-sided expansion has come to a head in this last century, at least in this part of the world.  For many, monetary worth and profit has become the only value by which they measure success, well-being and progress.   The egoistic, single focus infatuation with financial wealth had lead to dangerous amounts of overconsumption in parts of the world, while other regions and cultures have been deprived, impoverished and depleted by corporate greed.   Most of us in the so called ‘first world’ have indeed forgotten that we are part of the whole, inseparable from the earth, the water, the air around us.  Instead, we are walling ourselves off from the bigger picture and operate on a depletion economy that leaves destruction in its wake.  Have we created an empire of unregulated growth that will only collapse once it has completely destroyed the host and the entire organism dies?

Indigenous people have known this for a long time.  To quote Alanis Obomsawin, from the Abenaki Tribe in Canada:   “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money”.  Is it too late?  Can we still heal?  Can we remember our place within the whole and rebuild life affirming relationships with all parts of this creation?

Diagnosis is undoubtedly the hardest moment in anyone’s cancer journey.  Our entire world crumbles.  As we free fall into the truth of human impermanence, we temporarily loose the dimension of time, and the linear, conceptual world that is focused on control and strung together by details, schedules, and planning disappears before our very eyes.  None of that seems to matter anymore.  The rug of any mundane agenda is temporarily pulled out from under one’s feet.   Instead, we realize, deep down, what it means to be mortal.  That if not for the illusive shield of time, we are indeed already dead.  That no matter when exactly, one day we will indeed die, whether of cancer or something else.  Of course, we’ve always known, but now we really get it, we KNOW in our bones that our life is as unique as it it finite.  This realization, terrifying as it is when it hits, is also one of the greatest gifts we will ever receive, because it is here, in this emptiness, cracked open by grief, confusion and despair,  that the bare bones of what truly matters in our lives reveal themselves more clearly then ever before and the courage to live ever more fully is born.  It is precisely here, in confronting our dying, that we have an opportunity to make choices that will transform our lives, and create a healing response greater than anything we could have previously imagined.  Ironically, more often than not, it is in the realization of our ‘dis-ease’ that we find the heart to live a healing life.

I believe that the above is also true for us right now as a collective, as we are waking up to a world in which the death of our species and the demise of our environment is not only a real possibility but a probable, almost undeniable, scenario.  It is here, in this darkness, that we will find the courage to lean into a healing life.  In the midst of the incredulousness and deep grief about what is happening in this country, a sense of urgency is born in Americans that is calling us out to remember who we are and what we stand for.  People are shaken.   Acts of social and creative activism and courage are erupting in many pockets of our mainstream culture.  We are on edge, and cracked open by the realization of our collective dis-ease and the truth of impermanence.

As Trump takes office, I feel like we are officially entering a liminal time, a story between stories, a threshold in which we will be stripped down, and invited to die to our old ego centered ways of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ .  We may even die to the big lie of humans being separate from nature, which has accompanied us for the last couple of thousand years.  Not that it will come easy.  And, as with cancer, the outcome is uncertain.  No one knows if we are going to make it.  But it is precisely this edge, this collective brush up with death that has the potential to initiate us into this new awareness, to change our relationship with the world around us, and within us.  Looking back from the future, we may remember this time of human development as our transition from adolescence to adulthood.  We may remember it as a movement from the intense focus on independence which has had us incessantly pushing boundaries in the last few centuries to newly emerging values of interdependent stewardship, responsible, loving care and mature thoughtful protection and respect for all life forms and all living beings.

But for now, all we have is the unknown of this moment.  The grief over what is no longer working.  The fear in our bellies about what is to come.  The agonizing question of what is ours to do in meeting this time?  There is no quick fix and no failsafe cure.  But to muster the courage to be here now.  Simply being present where we are.  Right in the heart of the pain.  Letting go into it.  One breath at a time.  Again and again.  Trusting the heart of the darkness, to peel off another layer of our suffering, before returning us to the light.  It always does.  Because suffering has no other purpose then to lead to healing.   This I know.

So whether you are marching with thousands of others on this inauguration weekend or sitting quietly alone at home, I invite you to cross this threshold with your eyes wide open, and your heart ready to love into the midst of the transformative chaos and gut wrenching uncertainty of our times.  I invite you to die to your old stories, knowing that the healing set in motion when we do is like a domino effect that will go on perpetually, affecting every single area of our individual and collective lives, and shaping our human creation story in ways that we can’t even begin to anticipate.

In the fire of this cauldron, at this time that some call the ’Great Turning’, I invite you to dive deep,  to find your new story, the one that allows you to live from love rather than from fear, and to follow the naturally arising movement toward the wholehearted becomingness that was sung into you on the day of your birth.  Bring it on!  If not now, when?

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Yes, I’m writing!

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Wow!  Summer has just come and gone and here we are now in November!  It’s been a full few months for me, with back to back Lost Borders programs, the Washington Guides Gathering in the Eastern Cascades, and travel to my family in Germany.

My last blog post was back in June!  Writing has had to take the back seat for too long and I’ve been craving to make time for it.  So much so, that I decided to take my laptop along, to the last wilderness program of the year that I just returned from a little while ago.  With nightfall so early this time of year, I hauled up in the passenger seat of the truck at night, to sit and write (and to take a nice break from the relentless cold wind).

What began to form during my time in the Eureka Valley, is an exploration of the stories, the archetypical myths, that cancer evokes in us.  While there are many other threatening and terminal diseases, cancer elicits the confrontation with death in a particularly edgy way.  The mythos of a hostile take over of unwholesome, mutated, out of control cell growth aiming to kill us is unequivocally dark.  But that’s only one story.  An old story, and perhaps one in need of a fresh set of eyes…

But equally fascinating, if not more, are the stories that emerge in response to cancer.  Because regardless of what medical treatments we decide on, we also choose to adapt a story about our cancer: why we got it, how we live with it or through it, and how it integrates into the greater story of our lives.

The piece has given me a run for my money!  I was hoping to return from my time out with an article ready to post on this blog, but far from it.  Instead, it has stirred a deeper inquiry in me and I know it will need some more time to reveal itself.  So this is just a teaser note, to say “Yes, I’m writing (again)!” But it may take a little while before this piece finds its way into the light of day…

In the meantime, I want to share a 40-minute radio interview that I did in September, with Rev.  Kristin Powell on Cancer as a Rite of Passage.  A bit daunting because it made me realize how much I have yet to learn about public speaking 🙂 But in the spirit of beginner’s mind, here it is:

 

And here are a few short clips from it, on the topics listed below:

Diagnosis (3:37 minutes): 

Treatment (5:02 minutes): 

Survivorship (3:04 minutes):

As we are traveling into the oncoming darkness of days growing shorter, may we be able to make space for some quiet time, in the midst of this crazy human holiday business, to restore and resource ourselves.  It is so essential to allow time in the fertile cauldron of this season, where memories are stirred, seasoned and simmered into the rich broth that will feed us anew on the other side, come spring.

May we continue to risk ourselves for what we love.  Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

With all my love,

Petra

The Writing Grant

screenshotSitting in front of the blank page for the third morning. In front of the writing program that my lover gifted me during cancer treatment. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, in the summer of 2011, words would flow out of me from nowhere and land on whatever was in front of me at the time, whether it’d be journal pages, notes on my computer or emails. Needless to say, if I wanted to look at something later on, I could never find it again. Memory issues during chemo didn’t help either. But a writing program? “No pressure to do anything with it” he said when he caught the ambivalent look on my face, “this is just so you have one place to put all your pieces”. Did I mention I live with the most amazing man in the world?

Writing had not been new to me before cancer. In fact, I wrote feverishly for most of my young adult years, and those handwritten journals make up the bulk of the few possessions I still keep at my parents house back in Germany. But by the time I came to the US, in my late-twenties, I had given it up for the most part, making a point of choosing to immerse myself in direct and uncensored life experience.  Truth is, I needed to strip myself from the constant commentator inside, who was analyzing, criticizing, comparing, measuring, and trying to frame my every move. Giving up writing did not rid me of my inner self critic, of course, but forgoing the urge to document my inner process led me on a journey of continually letting go of the story I was telling myself about myself while it was happening. Not writing became a pointer and a guide for me. And although it peeked out at the world through the occasional colorful metaphor in letters to friends or emails, for the most part, my writing voice was quiet inside me for many years.

Until I was diagnosed. Medical leave from my job kicked in immediately and I entered nine months of treatment, and a seemingly obscene amount of spaciousness. Confronted with surgery, followed by chemo therapy and radiation, my physical strength declined more and more as treatment went on. Eventually, I needed help even with simple life chores like picking my son up from school or preparing dinner for the family. Paradoxically, at the same time, the presence in my being-ness seemed to grow only stronger. Stripped of the many logistical responsibilities and details that single moms juggle on a daily basis, my psyche dove deep into the kaleidoscope of my soul. Life became more contemplative than it had been in years. The inevitable confrontation with impermanence that cancer presents, the grief about the ongoing losses of look and use of body and mind, the physical progression of pain and debilitation, all only guided me more firmly towards deeper and deeper levels of surrender and letting go. The tougher things got, the more I would soften. To partner the pain all I could do was find my heart, over and over again, and practicing compassion, blow after blow.

It was from this place that I started writing again. From the soft, cracked open side of myself. Here, in the dark depth of my being, I found a wise and loving voice dwelling, that would take my scared little ego by the hand, and speak to me and through me, partnering the existential angst and fear that were evoked in the scathing process of cancer therapy with epiphanies about life and death, and blessed moments of inexplicable grace, so profoundly soothing that in time I came to realize that this journey through the underworld had given me more then all that was taken from me on the way there. Words poured into emails to friends, before every new chemo round. Poems, prose and voice memos formed spontaneously and for the first time in many years I began to journal again, my pen sometimes barely keeping up with the flow of what wanted to incarnate on the page in front of me.

I don’t recall the exact day it happened but returning home from one of my many “mini-me” medicine walks I heard that I was to write a book on Cancer as a Rite of Passage. It came in as a lean, matter of fact sentence, and completely out of the blue. The kind of guidance one cannot but trust. The kind that doesn’t require ’doing’ anything, but to listen, to note, and be open to let things unfold, to say yes into the unknown of the how, and the when, the shape, the form, or the venue.

Regardless of when and how, what matters most is the intent that was born on that day: to share with the world, and in particular those going through treatment, and their loved ones, that the journey with cancer, while exposing the raw truth of our mortality, is also offering a birth, a rite of passage, and, should we choose to accept it, an invitation to live into the new territory of an initiated life. To share what I have learned in partnering this journey as a wilderness rite of passage guide and a women going through cancer. To offer the road map that helped me find my way. And to witness the naturally arising movement into healing and wholeness in response to cancer.

Three years have gone by since then. My writing program is bulging at its virtual seams, with lose bits and pieces, notes, drafts, articles, blog posts, voice memo transcripts, quotes and inspirations. Continually asked to surrender my own expectations of any particular outcome, my intent has only grown stronger during this time. This blog came into being, and with it the commitment to post a new article every one or two months, and to keep risking my heart with words.

I would be lying to you if I said that my writer’s voice was fully healed. Writing is still difficult business for me. It humbles me to admit how the edge of having an imagined audience plays havoc on my psyche. And yet, there is a knowing inside me that writing is now simply part of my healing. Although it isn’t any less cursed then it ever was. And yes, the inner self-critic still shows up at times, unannounced and harsh as ever. But something in me is able to partner it differently now. I feel more available to be with what hurts, and find my conversation with it. Instead of just experiencing the pain of my inability to form a sentence, I now feel fortunate to notice how desperately my ego tries to be something or someone special. How much I want to be right. Or cool. Or intense. Witty. Smart. Expressive. You name it… And by some small miracle I can somehow cradle myself right there, kind of going ‘there, there’ to myself. And then move ahead and put some words on the page anyway and simply risk myself. With all of it. With the fear of being dull or dumb or arrogant. Moment by moment giving up expectations. Willing to be with what is true for me. To let myself flow, to let myself go into the page, naked, awkward, and insecure – and to let myself be loved right there.

When I turned into healing in response to cancer, little did I know that it would not only touch, and transform every aspect of my life at the time, but that it would do so in ever widening circles, and, I have come to suspect, for the rest of my life. And so it is with writing. Of course it can’t just be ABOUT healing. The process itself has to be healing at the same time.  A tall order indeed.  But miraculously, in the last few months, courting my dark angel in various ways, dappling in writing some shorter pieces for my blog, and a few articles, some invisible threshold has been crossed. Writing has become precious to me. It is a sacred struggle now and, as I’ve come to realize, an important part of reclaiming my indigenous nature.

Ultimately, for me writing always points toward healing with love. Not surprising because it is what my life is now dedicated to. And this greater intent helps me risk more and be less self concerned. As a portal or tool for healing with love, I have to be willing, like any artist’s pencil or brush, to put my best foot forward, knowing that I will be sharpened and erased at times. I will inevitably mess up. Blotch and on occasion even bleed all over the page. It also means giving up thinking I knew where the sketch was going, but instead softening into the hand that is guiding me across the page. Knowing that I am not the one writing. Not the one to praise, or blame. Not the one who picks the colors, or the type of canvas or even what will appear on it. As a writer, I am simply the one that listens to the story that wants to be told, making room within myself to let it emerge, shaping it with all the skill I can muster, and trusting that, for all my faults, by some mysterious happenstance, I am the right medium to birth it. Because we don’t pick our stories. Our stories pick us.

One day last fall, while attending an international Wilderness Guides Conference in South Africa, I found myself an animated conversation with a German woman talking about Cancer as a Rite of Passage. Angelika loved my blog but really urged me to realize my dream of writing a book. I found myself back paddling that night, adding up all the reasons that held me back. I had no time. Working in the administration of two small non-profits and being a wilderness guide took all I had. I had no money. Even if I could, by some miracle, carve out the time for a project of this size, I couldn’t afford a chunk of unpaid time of this magnitude. As I was adding up all the reasons why this book wouldn’t get written in the foreseeable future, I felt more and more defensive, and then simply sad. I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. Was it really impossible? And if so, was time to let go of the idea altogether? More sadness. After two and a half years out of treatment what did I have to show for it? A few blogposts. A couple of articles. A bulging draft folder.

Were there ways that I hadn’t considered yet? I remembered one young writer friend, who I supported in her crowd fundraising efforts to gather a few thousand dollars so she could take off to South America for six months where she wrote a book about the tragic death of her lover. With a boy in high school, in one of the highest rent districts in California, that wasn’t really an option for me. Still, I loved the very real community support that crowd funding offered, not just the financial part but the emotional aspect of it as well. One way to know whether this book really wanted to be written. Whether it was more then just my idea. When I finally went to sleep that night, I felt softer and more open. Not that anything had changed, really, but the walls around it all had come down a bit and I felt more open to possibility, however unknown.

The very next day I got an email from Kabir, founder and director of Lawyers for Natural Justice, a good man and a new ally in our lives. He had just assisted us the week before leading an introductory rite of passage program for a group of select lawyers just north of Cape Town. In his email he explained that, as an alumni of a South African Grant Giving Fellowship, once a year he could suggest a worthy candidate for what they call a ‘flash grant’, a smaller one time amount, to support individuals with a unique cause. And that he had decided to endorse me. How in the world? Turns out he checked out my blog. And chose to nominate me.

$5,000!  He said it was ‘easy money’, no long application process and pretty much guaranteed to come through. I should hear from them within a month or so. It sounded too good to be true. But sure enough, about a month later, I got the email from the Shuttleworth Foundation, asking me for my financial banking information. It was an easy process indeed. All they asked of me, was to “live out loud” and “tell the world” what I had done with the funds within six months of the grant. And to put their ‘funded by Shuttleworth’ sticker on my blog. Easy.

What wasn’t so easy was making this grant truly support my being, not just my doing. I felt responsible to use the funds in the way they would make the most impact for Cancer as a Rite of Passage. Was writing a book truly serving? It took time to work out my doubts, and it was reading their mission statement that helped me find my way back to my heart. They make a point of investing in people versus concepts, and supporting individuals to create the spaciousness necessary to birth their ideas. What an amazing concept! If I can truly let that in, it sets me free.

Like I said, I am not in control of what appears on the page. What I can say yes to is to use the money to create space for the inquiry into Cancer as a Rite of Passage. To take the time to face the empty page, to reread old notes, to edit, add and subtract, to ruminate, to follow the flow of my heart through my pen, aka keyboard. What I can do is remember not turn this opportunity into a product driven burden. A book still sounds daunting. A booklet? I feel my shoulders coming down. Truth is, I don’t know yet. And maybe I don’t need to know. What I know now is that as of March 1, the first hour of my day belongs to writing. One hour a day. Not much at all, but it is what is sustainable in my life right now. Just enough light to take the next step. Paying myself $10 an hour, and transferring my ‘pay’ from the savings passbook that holds my grant money to my checking account at the end of the month. And trusting into this opening.

March 15. 3,000 words later. If I thought it’d be hard to have enough discipline to sit down every morning I couldn’t have been more wrong. What turns out to be the real challenge is stopping when the hour is up. I find myself prying away from the page, my psyche begging for “just one  more sentence, just 5 more minutes”. Writing for an hour only I end up percolating with it all day.  Giving it space to breathe and move around in me, rather then trying to ‘get it done’ or ‘get it right’ helps me focus on the process rather then the product, on the practice rather then the accomplishment and on the inquiry instead of the epiphany.

Too many times before I have sat to the point of exhaustion for fear that if I don’t stick with it, the elusive essence of what I feel inside may never take shape, and what was begging to incarnate through my writing would never be born. Now I find that my practice is playing at it all.  And surprisingly, in risking the edge of loosing my muse, I find it pursuing me instead. Teasing her like a lover at foreplay, only to then, at the end of the hour, once all the juices are flowing, say: “Sorry, time to go. I’ll be back tomorrow.” And all day long, feeling the energy humming inside me, literally turned on. And allowing myself to stay with that creative tension. To ruminate as little as possible about the “perfect” sentences that I hear emerge while cooking dinner or trying to go to sleep. To let them come and go, trusting that the next words that need to appear will be there when I sit down to write the next day. And the next day. Because if I seriously commit to writing, I have to make it sustainable for myself and train my muse to come visit me in the daily doses that my life allows. To help her pace herself so she doesn’t burn out like a shooting star. Because we’re in it for the long haul now.

I still don’t know exactly what territory we’ll travel. Will my writing transpire into more blogposts or will I do more writing offline? Will I create an outline or just follow the meandering flow of my heart? Will I try to create a chapter or two of a possible book to submit to a publishing house? Just enough light to take the next step. What I know is that I have entered a committed relationship with writing to share my inquiry into Cancer as a Rite of Passage with the world. To partner this very real life initiation with the age old road maps that rite of passage ceremonies have offered our indigenous ancestors around the earth for thousands of years. I have recently heard someone say on the journey with cancer there’s a pot of gold. May my words, and my story, no matter what shape they take, help find that treasure.

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The Yard Sale


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One Saturday morning, about 10 days after the last chemo treatment, my lover found a yard sale that advertised lots of women’s clothes my size.  Floundering about yard sales and serendipitously finding things and (sometimes people) that relate to our lives in interesting ways is something we both love.  In addition, I was in the process of  starting  a whole new wardrobe from scratch.  Most of my favorite pre-surgery tops made me sad, looking lost on my much smaller post-op frame and though I was feeling dizzy and weak I was determined not to miss this chance.

By the time we made it there, the woman who had the sale had sold many of her items already and the first wave of yard sale customers had come and gone.  As we checked out what was left, we got to talking to her and it turned out that, like me, she was from Germany.  Her clothes and shoe size was very close to mine and I tried on several of her outfits in her garage.  She kept complementing me on how tiny I was and that she too once had the same figure.  Eventually, I shared with her the reason for my recent change in body fat.  🙂 She said:  “Oh, you probably don’t want to hear this, but my mother died of breast cancer when she was 41”.  Honestly, no, I didn’t!  But here it was again, the ever present reminder of how close cancer is to all of us.  So many are touched by it, if not within themselves then within their family or community.  Turns out Iris was 18 when her mother died, but her younger sister was only 5 years old at the time.  “My mother actually found the cancer early.  She was nursing my sister at the time and went to see the doctor about a lump in her breast.  But the doctor dismissed it as nothing and it was not until 3 years later that the cancer was found.  By then it was too late…..”

There are so many stories that I have heard since I have been diagnosed.  In some way it doesn’t surprise me anymore.  In some other ways it still does.  Being visible as a cancer patient in the outside world, marks me as vulnerable and mortal.  It also reminds people that life really is precious and impermanent.  Not everyone exactly likes to know that.  Even though life has a 100% mortality rate, most people prefer to ignore their basic human condition and take their lives for granted – literally, not receiving it as a gift, but as a given.  This sense of owning our lives actually creates a false sense of security.  Of course, life is never in our control.   A lot of human suffering is directed toward supporting the illusion of control over our lives to foster a sense of safety.  Ultimately, all attempts to assure our minds that we are in charge are futile.  Deep within our human DNA we know that life is ever fluid and changing, unbeknownst to our interpretations and subject to change at any minute of any day.

After I picked out some clothes that look like good additions to my wardrobe, I pay Iris and thank her for her very reasonable pricing.  She says: “I wish you good luck!  I do hope things work out for you.” , smiling awkwardly.  I am taken aback.  There is this funny feeling left in the air, some kind of a unspoken but distinct separation between us.  I am the one in need of luck.  She has seen cancer kill her mother.  She is (presumably) healthy and I am in unknown territory.  I want to say to her that my prognosis is very good.  That I will be fine.  That we are ALL mortal, not just me….!!!  For a moment I feel sorry for myself.  I want to be back in the “healthy people club”, the ones that have it “all together”, that can afford to wish sick people “good luck”.  I want to be back with the normal people, with the ignorant people, because it is so much easier than being so vulnerable, so on the edge of my living, so stripped down and with nothing but the commitment to live into the truth of my healing in every moment, without control in outcome and trusting into the unknown.

And yet, as we are pulling away from the curb, I realize that this is my gift now:  that I am willing to be that vulnerable  and naked, awakened by the journey through the fire.  Truth is, I could use all the luck I could get.  Life would never be the same for me after cancer, and actually I didn’t want it to.  I was grateful for the opportunity to wake up.  Along with a lot of pain and hardship, it had also brought incredible freedom into my life.  For better or for worse, I would never be able to go back to what once was.  Yes, in some bizarre way, the Damocles sword of recurrence would continue to set me free as much as it would keep me on my toes, asking me to open into moment after moment of this precious life, without being able to ‘count’ on any future but really being present NOW and NOW and NOW.  Because it is all we ever have to bring ourselves truly alive.

I realized how deeply I was committed to this path, and this practice now.  So what if I got tossed into the “sick corner” by some.  I would gladly stand in for our human condition as vulnerable stewards of this life we are taking care of.  Nothing wrong with that.  Smiling to myself I finally responded silently in my heart to Iris’s “good luck” with “I kindly thank you”, feeling peace and blessedness fill my heart while my lover turns toward me, from the driver seat, his eyes tender.  ‘”You okay?” he asks.  ” Yes”, I respond, “never better”.

 

LOVE – what else?

The following is a letter to my sweet soul sister Theresa, from a couple of weeks ago, around Valentine’s day.  We call each other cougars because we both continue to courageously turn into our own healing journey with cancer, and cougar has become somewhat of a code name for us to speak to the medicine power, the fierceness, the strength and the grace that is called out from us in the process.  So here is goes:

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Dear Cougar Sister,

Yes, I know Valentines’ day is super cheesy and I can’t believe I’m writing you a Valentine’s letter.  Hearts and all!   But these days, and in this new life, things are more fluid, and sometimes things emerges that are as surprising to me as to anyone around me….

I’d already noticed last Christmas that I was less than average cynical about the whole holiday. Not a traditional Christian at heart I used to struggle to find my true place within the cultural anxiety grit of this holiday. For years I simply did it for my children, making their holidays bright, and trying to generate good memories for them, keeping things as sane and heart centered as possible.

But this last year, my growing children, my youngest 15 going on 25, were more leaned back about the whole thing than ever. With my lover feeling some of my usual pre-holiday angst, I was surprised to instead discover this genuine excitement about the upcoming feast inside me, even including all the parts that are always complicated, like dinner at my ex-husband’s house. I found myself humming and truly enjoying our Christmas tree, that for the first time was decorated with all white lights, as my young man finally seem to have outgrown the colored light preference of his childhood. There was a feeling of preciousness that made me feel soft, open, grateful and blessed. Who knows how many holidays I would still have with my kids, before my son was off to college abroad or elsewhere involved in his own life?

As our dying practice continues to teach us, it is in our letting go that we come ever more fully alive and I feel the truth of this running strongly through all major tangents of my life these days. There is simply no place left in this life that is not sacred, beautiful, and blessed – even the culturally loaded holidays or, and yes, maybe even the far fetched wanna-be occasions like Valentine’s day beckon our appreciation.

In this life, partnered by the firm hand of cancer, there is no space left for cynicism, too precious is each moment and each blade of grass under our feet. To us, the simple witnessing of clouds shape shifting is a blessing, even when they occasionally obscure the sun. In this presence, all is well – even that which isn’t so well. There is no longer room for ’no’ but only an ever evolving ‘yes’ to life, to love, to risk ourselves, to laugh, to make mistakes, to surrender any remaining resistance to the beauty and blessedness of all things, even death, to be honest, outrageous and irrational. To trust, to leap and to embrace, to forgive, to let go and to continue to open into the unknown, with every fiber of our heart.

And so it is with this long intro that I send you sweetest Valentine’s Day wishes.   Because there is no reason too small (or too cheesy!) for an invitation to celebrate. Ultimately, is it not what we are here for in the first place, to turn our bodies and minds over and have love have her way with us?

With gratitude for all the ways that we continue to turn into the blessedness of our living and dying.

Petra, your cougar sister

Finding True North

Help me not to act out of my fear of my death

but to surrender to my living and my dying every day,

trusting the beauty in all things.

Help me give up

harsh, unloving and self-incriminating judgment,

to steward the body and mind I have have today

with loving kindness, compassion and grace.

Truly knowing

innate and fundamental goodness

is the essence of all life.

September 2, 2011

Today

Today

The road ahead is wide and open.

Wild flowers are dancing with the wind across the meadow.

Tiny birds sing beauty’s song, blessings all beings,

Seen and unseen, heard and unheard.

Today I choose to be alive.

Tomorrow never comes.

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Edgewood Open Space Preserve, Summer of 2011