Remembering Our Most Essential Self: Re-Shaping the Story of Cancer

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The mythos of cancer certainly presents like a picture book dark tale:  A hostile take over of unwholesome, mutated, out of control cell growth that is quite literally aiming to kill us.  Talk about a chilling image!  Posing as an infamous evil force, cancer evokes all sorts of dark allegories for any of us receiving the dreaded three word verdict: “You have cancer”.

The attitudes and choices in how we each deal with cancer vary enormously, depending on age, gender, severity of diagnosis and so many more personal factors.  But regardless of the medical treatments we decide on, we also choose to adopt a story about our cancer: why we got it, how we live with it or through it, and what it means to us in the greater context of our lives.

Stories are essential for us.  Human psyche is hard-wired to make meaning, to myth itself, if you will.   Unbeknownst to us, throughout our lives it tries to connect the seemingly random events that mark and shape the map of our living, to trace the greater story behind it all.  Trying to reveal the mysterious and illusive design of what I will call our becomingness, for lack of a better word.  A sort of constant movement toward a greater wholeness that our soul is aching for by nature.  The mythic story that we seem born to incorporate.  The mysterious, precious and unique expression of life that is entrusted each of us.  Maybe the very reason why we are here.

The Hopi believed that in order for the sun to rise, they had to climb up to the roof of their kivas before dawn to coax it across the horizon. They actively partook in their creation story every morning by helping the sun rise into the sky with song and prayer.  Today, many of us assume that we are separate from nature and that it works independently of our actions.  No doubt, different stories result in different actions and distinctly different relationships.

The stories we carry have indeed great power.   They can make us or break us.  They can make the difference between intolerable suffering or amazing grace.  They can be medicine or poison.  Some stories of lineage and ancestry we are born into and have absorbed without ever hearing them being spoken.  Yet they live deep within our bones and inform our every move.  The stories that we don’t even know we are telling ourselves.  Those can indeed be the most dangerous ones.

But there are also healing stories, stories that inspire and transform us, empower and renew us, restore and liberate us.  Apart from stirring our deepest, darkest fears of obliteration, is it possible that cancer also offers us a healing story?  A story that frees us to heal our lives and shed old, unhealthy beliefs?   I dare to believe so.

For me, cancer struck at a time when I was in economic and emotional survival mode and my story was one of continued endurance.  As a single mom, I felt stuck at a stressful and unfulfilling job, struggling to put bread on the table and pay the rent.  I had known for a while that the life I lived was not sustainable in the long run and that things needed to change.  But try as I might I wasn’t able to get out from underneath the daily demands.  The day that I heard I had cancer, I remember, as the typical first reaction waves of terror, shock, and incredulousness were washing over me, one small voice rising from some place deep inside me, simply and quietly stating:  “Oh, so I wasn’t only imagining it.  This life is actually killing me”.

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As broad and unscientific a description, it does seem that stress is a core player in the story of cancer.  Science has now confirmed that long-term stress compromises the immune system and increases the chances of cancer.  And this seems to be true for all kinds of stress, physical, emotional, or environmental, if they are endured over a long period of time.  Short term, fight, flight and freeze responses are great life savers to meet a specific crisis, challenge or need.  The problem is, when we begin living for any length of time in what nature designed solely as a short-term crisis management.  Long term stress overloads our circuits and eventually erodes our wellbeing.

To no surprise there is mounting evidence today for a correlation between cancer and the chronic frenzy of modern life that promotes constant achievement oriented busyness.  Living in a global, and computer wired economy, life’s pace is ever relentlessly increasing.  Most of us no longer have the luxury of ‘down time’.   We are always ‘on’.  We work from anywhere, at any time.  We make phone calls while driving, and send job applications while watching our kids at the park.  In the hamster wheel of our times, things seem to constantly speed up and for many of us, feeling stressed has become a way of life.

A week after diagnosis, I saw a genetic counselor.  He described the process of cancer not so much as the premeditated destructiveness that I imagined it to be, but more as a process of forgetting one’s diversification, one’s place in the whole.  You see, cancer cells get graded by the degree of their deformation and how much they deviate from healthy cells.   The lowest grade of cancer cells is only slightly altered from its original specifics, the next level is moderately altered and so on.  Interestingly, the more deteriorated the cancer cells become, the more unspecified and rudimentary they mutate to be, the more aggressive and lethal they are.

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Hearing this, I found myself feeling some compassion for my cancer, unbeknownst to myself.  Maybe it wasn’t the bad guy it was made out to be.  Maybe those cells that had mutated in my right breast were simply breaking down under the pressure of working in survival mode for too long.  I could relate to that. Like a brewery horse, I had been leaning forward into my work load for too long, taking every day like a steep hill, with the whip always dancing over my head.  There were many times I could feel myself almost buckling under the weight, but I kept stoically putting one foot in front of another.  I didn’t feel like I had any other choice.  All I could see were the immediate and short-term needs of my children.  My worry for them overrode everything else.  Had I not also, just like those cancer cells, forgotten my place in the wholeness, in the magic and health of this amazing, much bigger life system?  Had I not atrophied myself, under the constant stress of single parenthood?  Had I not indeed become short-sided and rudimentary, having lost trust in life, and forcing myself to uphold a 24/7 production mode that only reinforced the fear cycle of worry about what would happen if I didn’t ‘function’ anymore, or needed rest, or simply snapped under the weight of it all?

If cancer was indeed telling a story of forgetting myself, and my place in the wholeness of creation, what did it mean for me to remember myself?

I never returned to my desk on the fateful day that I was diagnosed.  Instead, sick leave kicked in and I entered what would turn out to be nine months of treatment: first surgery, then chemo, and then radiation.  It was a hard time.  A really hard time.  But it was also an amazing time.  Realizing that the best I could do for my children now was to lean into my healing fully and wholeheartedly was puzzling, and juxtaposition to the self-neglect of many years.  My world was literally standing on its head.  Paradoxically being diagnosed with cancer allowed me time out, for the first time in many years.  Time to take inventory, to think things over.  Time to reevaluate and step back to see the bigger picture.  It allowed me, and also demanded of me, in the uncertainty that was ahead, to give up control, to trust that if I was only present here now, willing to be still, willing to listen to the small voice of my heart, I would find my way.

Through the various cancer treatments that followed, it was my internal inquiry, and the focus on remembering myself, that kept me going.  Where and when exactly had I fallen out of trust, had I lost faith in life and my place in the whole?  When did I begin to feel all alone in the world and without any support?  When did my existential fears reduce my outlook on life to a narrow tunnel version of survival?

Was it the divorce?  The death of the dream that I could be loved and seen for who I really was? That my children would grow up in the blessedness of a healthy family hearth?  Was it the pain of the grieving years that followed and the fear of being obliterated by the man whom I now referred to as my ex-husband?  Or was it set in motion much earlier, by the karmic formations that brought us together, or even before, by fundamental experiences in my childhood?

During the long months of treatment, debilitating as they were, I began to reconnect with my being rather than identify with my doing.   I bubbled in the cauldron of change.  Everything was up for grabs.  Not just my work but my entire life.  Accepting help was a first for me, and to this day plays a big part in my healing journey.  Realizing that ultimately I was not alone transformed the landscape of my living.  Becoming aware of and turning into my fears rather then acting from them became a new core practice.  Letting go and letting be replaced the knee jerk impulse to try to control at all cost.  Surrendering, aka dying to all that was not in alignment with my healing (instead of dying from it!) became my new mantra and has been both blessing and haunting me every day since, continuously asking me to turn into my truth and live it forward.

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Amazingly, it is the very ability of surrender, of yielding, and being willing to die for the greater good of the whole that differentiates a healthy cell from a cancer cell.  Science calls this capacity aptosis, a programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms to protect the integrity of the whole.  Healthy cells seem to identify on a broader level with the larger organism they are serving, and this connectedness and belongingness mysteriously enables them to turn into their dying when they are somehow compromised and no longer benefit the whole.  Cancer cells seem to no longer recognize, trust or feel part of the bigger life system around them, and in this isolation they atrophy into a kind of reptilian survival mode that no longer supports the very organism they were designed to serve.

Is it possible then that in order to heal our life we also need to also mend our relationship with death?  To allow it to be part of the landscape of our human experience, in much the same way that healthy cells carry aptosis as one of many tools on their belt?

Yes!  Healing our relationship with death and even befriending it, learning how to die well, is essential in learning how to live well.   Turning into our dying, is just as important for us internally, figuratively, and psychologically, as it is vital for our bodies on a cellular level.  Dying practice is indeed essential for our living.

We live in a modern-day culture of denial when it comes to death, in a time of ‘great forgetting’, where we simply pretend, for as long as we can, that death doesn’t exist.  Death is not only misunderstood, but clearly unwelcome in our culture.  We are addicted to unbridled, and infinite expansion, a one way road that leads us to a dangerous amount of overconsumption on many levels, individually as well as collectively or globally.  But death is not the enemy.  It is simply the out-breath that partners the in-breath of birth.  It is the withdrawing that allows us to come forward again, the waning that enables the next waxing.  Death restores, transforms and draws us back to the source from which we are born, if only we let it.  When did we forget that?

With chemo raging through my body like a bushfire, confronting myself with death was not an abstract concept.  I got, in my bones, that life in this body is temporary.  That I didn’t own my life and was not in control of it.  It felt like something inside me died in the heat of that cauldron, and with it the fears, and formations of my old life, fierce guardians of habit and pattern, fell away as well, giving birth to a new way of inhabiting this body and mind.

When we brush up against death, through whatever life circumstances, there is a gift offered alongside the painful edge of realizing our own finiteness, a dropping away, a cracking open, and a freedom from all preconceived ideas.  A new connection is forged to our core, our essence, to that which rests in ‘no coming, no going’, ‘no birth, no death’, the mysterious, blessed, eternal, being-ness that we are.

Trust in the greater good is vital for the health at the core of our being.  Truly meeting and healing cancer seems to ask nothing less of us then to heal any trauma that is underlying the assumption that life is a hostile environment.

During treatment, I became very aware that many of my internal patterns were about survival, at any cost, fueled by the fear of death, of impermanence, of failure, loss of control and the lurking dread of a ‘bad ending’.  Looking back now, these patterns played a major part in me ending up in the dead-end road that cancer found me on.  Some of these formations had been created way back, when I was a young child.  Whether it was the undigested trauma of my parents, both small children in Germany during the 2nd world war, or the abusive relationship with my brother, there was not a single layer of my life that wasn’t touched on in one form or another on this journey.

Make no mistake.  The healing that is set in motion when we die to our old stories is like a domino effect that will go on perpetually, affecting every single area of our lives, every layer of our complex personalities and carefully constructed identities, every memory, every perception of who we think ourselves to be; all to reveal a deeper truth that frees us to remember the unique expression of life that we each are at the source of our being.

So what happened to me after treatment?  Nine months after I was diagnosed I returned to my old office, bald and weak from treatment but with clear eyes set on new horizons, and only to clean out personal belongings from my old desk.  Lo and behold, new opportunities emerged out of the open empty space, meeting my fledgling attempt to find a new way of being in the world.  Because death inevitably gives birth to life….

To no surprise I don’t resonate much with the word ‘Survivor’.  In my heart, healing from cancer feels more like recovering from a survival mechanism gone rogue.  And as someone in recovery, I feel especially committed to partner my instinctual fear of death, with a deliberate practice of trust in the Greater.

Restoring death to its rightful place within my universe is an essential part of that healing.  Risking failure, letting go of judgment, living light and lean, allowing myself to make mistakes, letting my heart guide me rather than my rational mind, listening to the river, opening to mystery and magic, practicing defeat, living with and into the unknown are all wonderful allies and great trainers for the one fine day when it’s my turn to cross the threshold into my physical death, and dissolve into the rich broth of some new making.

Cancer, and the confrontation with death, can shift our conversation of survival to an inquiry of arriving in the grace of our living.  This shift is vital in our healing process and carries a message back into the cellular level of our beings that allows us to live from love rather then from fear.  And living from love is really what it’s all about.  It is indeed the story of our most essential self.

Harvest

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Pulling out a bunch of multi-colored carrots from the small corner patch planted late last spring, in our garden in the Owen’s Valley, something hits me.  It’s a golden mid-October morning, the kind of day that opens your soul to the beauty of all that is exquisitely alive and heart-wrenchingly impermanent – so basically everything….

Delighting in the orange, white and red carrots in my hand, some long and slender, some thick and stubby, some tiny and some very sizable, and the lush tangle of green leafy stems that grew them, I am struck by the paradoxical nature of this moment :  that I can only harvest these carrots by taking their life.  That I can only steep in the simple miracle of their beauty and sweetness after having pulled them out of the ground.  Maybe death is always like that, for all of us.  Maybe death is just the moment when we get harvested.  Each of us in our own time.  Some of us well after our prime and others prematurely.  Who knows why?   What if death is simply harvest time? And while we cling to the soil of our living like the next plant, it is our destiny to come out into the light of a fine day that we will not know until we get there.

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Something in me is softening.  Thinking of death as a harvest I feel my breath deepen and my body relax.  All is well.  In life and in death.  I needed to remember that.  No matter how many ways I have already known it, no matter how many more times it will reveal itself to me.  I need to remember it over and over again.  Because I always forget.

Truth is, the privilege of a life ‘on the edge of my seat’ (as I call my new life post-cancer-treatment) is not always as glorious as I’d like it to be.  I often say cancer saved my life and in many ways this is very true.  It allowed me to take an in-depth inventory of my life before it was my time to leave this world.   An early death lodge if you will.  It granted me the opportunity to make radical changes in areas of my life that begged for alignment.  It gave me the courage to quit a job that was killing me (quite literally, as it turned out!) and expand and transform my limited notion of what it means to be a fiercely loving, responsible and committed parent.  Ultimately, it gifted me with the freedom, and the need, to heal this one precious life forward, whatever that meant for me.

At the time, I was flabbergasted.  I had made it through the maze.  No more medical interventions, no more surgeries, poisoning or radiating.  No more doctors visits for a while.  My new life was extending before me in brand-new colors.  I wouldn’t have wanted to return to my old life if I could have!  I felt blessed living on the edge, with all the unknown that recovery from cancer holds.  I knew that it would be this very edge that would help me turn into my new life wholeheartedly.  I knew it would help me let go of old knee jerks, and worn out patterns which were not supporting a healing life.  It would set me free to take risk and stay true and current in my relationship to myself, my family and my work in the world, keenly aware that all I had was the present moment.  Actually, I felt quite blessed for no longer being able to take my life for granted.  Instead, I got to steward it forward for what it really was (and is): one wild and precious opportunity to come ever fully alive.

And yet.  And yet.  Some days, living at the edge of my seat feels overrated.  It is many things but the one thing it is not is comfortable.  I’m two and a half years into it now and the truth is, it isn’t getting any easier.  The same special rawness of this life, that calls me out and into my truth, day after day, is simultaneously wearing me down.  The healing movement that was born in response to cancer continues to spiral out into more and more areas of my life, asking me to become more and more aware and present on so many levels.  This is a good thing.  But in reality it’s not so easy.  Like in any true healing, a surprising amount of suffering comes forward in the process, wanting to be held, seen and witnessed in order to be released.  Core childhood fears, rudimentary survival responses  and post traumatic anxieties surface unannounced and at random times and they are not easy dance partners.  That’s the part I don’t share as readily with others, the shadow of my journey.  But, if you will, it is also the part that makes it real.

In many ways the realization of our impermanence is what countless spiritual practices work so hard to attain.  As people touched by cancer, we get a life long free pass.  A perk, by all means!  The only hitch is that we can’t get off the ride when we’re dizzy or nauseous or simply feel we’ve had enough.  Unlike other people who commit to a regular meditation practice, we can’t get up from our pillow or decide to skip a day of practice.  Having lost the ability to negate our own death we are in this for life – in the advanced course of living AND dying.

While the gift of having lost my ‘insulation’ for good is an amazing opportunity for me to live an awakened life, it is also one of the biggest blows for my ego.  There isn’t a day that it isn’t fighting this truth, one way or another, to the bone and back.  To the bone and back.  To the bone – and back.

The illusion of control and the sense of ownership of our life is no longer available after having encountered cancer.  It’s just not on the menu.  We know better.  And in case we forget, invariably, we have close friends from old support groups doing well for many years only to then die suddenly and unexpectedly of recurrences.  We buddy and coach newly diagnosed comrades through the highs and lows of their treatments, with varying outcome.  We have prayer lists for those with terminal diagnosis.  We are ALWAYS the first ones to call and consult if anyone in our family, or community gets cancer.  Or one of our 466 Facebook friends.  Sometimes it feels like the whole world has cancer.  Like it or not, death is always on our watch list.

Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing and transcendent moments in this new, light and lean life, and when they happen I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.  Just the other day, doing yoga outside, in midst of the luminous colors of a crisp fall morning in the Owen’s Valley, I was graced with one of them.  I fell into a sense of connectedness with the beauty all around, a sense of presence, beauty and blessed awe that words will only fail to convey.  Lets simply say that I realized that all is well.  That sounds so little compared to how it felt.  ALL is WELL! Nothing excluded.  ALL is well.  Just now.  Just here.  Nothing to run from and nothing to run to.  Just this breeze that rustles the leaves.  For a brief moment, only presence, a precious, timeless presence, humming in the middle of my chest, and gently radiating outward.

In presence fear falls away.  Separation falls away.  Sickness falls away.  And birth and death are simply swinging doors.  In presence we are connected to our true being, our essence, the awakened and connected one that lives deep within each of us.  We sense what some call ‘the great beauty’, or the ‘divine design’ and our belonging to it.  We realize that everything but love is just a misunderstanding.

And yet.  And yet.  What do we do when the nights are dark, when something hurts, when recurrence hits?  When a friend dies from chemo induced treatment resistant leukemia years into their so called survivorship?  Where do we turn when fear rises from deep within our gut?  When our mind goes around and around in circles in the middle of the night, adding up frightening, and, we are sure, pretty conclusive symptoms of one kind or another, already calculating percentages and likelihoods of conditions yet to be diagnosed?

Most of us rally during treatment.  Faced with the unthinkable, we turn into our becoming with amazing resolve and unparalleled courage.  Each in our own way, we find our warrior stance.  But how to turn into what hasn’t happened yet but we are afraid might happen is another story.  Although I hate to admit it, anxiety, and post traumatic stress are real factors in my life now.  “Is this the way life is going to be for me now?”, I hear myself despair at times, when my neurons misfire, triggered by some random event, rendering me into a nervous wreck for weeks or months at a time.  And I have to remind myself softly to lean into what is as best I can in the present moment, and trust healing to reach for me, even here.

Resistance to what is, is futile, so much I know.  Surrender, on the other hand, is gold.  Gold!  In health and in sickness, when we surrender all that hurts or hinders our healing, we are free.  I call it the big ’S’.  Surrender is like dying for beginners.  Every time we let go we practice for that one fine day of our crossing, when we can’t take anything with us but the healing that we have brought home during our lives.  It is letting things be, just as they are, and holding them with love, without exceptions.  Used in this way, surrender is the gateway into a happiness that is both our original birthright and our natural state.   The place where all is well.  Even that which isn’t well, if that makes any sense.

Cancer is a rite of passage.  And as any rite of passage guide would tell you, what turns out to be the hardest part of the ceremony is not the actual time out on the mountain, when you’re in the middle of the ordeal, hungry, tired and weary from the wind, but when you’re coming back to the world and to your community, having been irrevocably changed.  The mono myth of the ‘hero’s journey’ is widely used in the cancer community today, but just like in the old hollywood movies we fancy the illusion of an ongoing ’happy ending’ after all is said and done.  Truth is, there is no ending.  Yes, there is happiness, and many of us experience a particular sense of acute aliveness that affords us to live a little looser in our skins, grateful for the small and big gifts in our everyday living and prone to focus on what really matters to our heart.  But there is also darkness, right alongside with the gift.  There is the continual relentless call to confront, reconcile, and make good with our worst fears and deepest grief.  Life with or after cancer is more intense both ways, lighter and more amazing and darker and more challenging.

I could tell you what I do when the going gets tough.  I have my bag of tricks.  We all do.  Practices, mantras, medications, meditations and more.  And maybe I will, another time.  But today I just want to say that I don’t have the answer.  That there is no quick fix and no failsafe cure.  The simple truth is, that sometimes it’s just damn hard.  Sometimes the best we can do is hunker down, hold on and let the storm blow over.  No matter how bad, eventually the weather will change.  Night will give way to dawn.  Yes, this too shall pass.  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.  Surrendering to what is.  Turning into the skid.  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.

I heard that when Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold.  They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.  If this is so, then may we too shine golden through our cracked open selves, less perfect but more beautiful; courageous, edgy, and wildly alive.  Until that one fine day of our harvest.  And on that day, may we bring a big old smile to creation’s face when she is inspecting us with loving curiosity, size, shape, scars and all, before tasting the sweetness of what we have done with our lives.

The Prayer Beads

By Julia Gunnels
A new and dear friend of mine gave me some prayer beads. There are ten large, dark amethyst beads with one light amethyst bead, making eleven in all. The string of beads just fits around my hand. I had never really used prayer beads, but I took them with me to my three day retreat right after I received the diagnosis.
I stayed in our community meditation room which is open, spacious with many windows and lots of light. Shortly into the first day I was sitting in a comfortable chair watching the tops of the bamboos trees moving in the warm breeze through the open windows. Tears streamed down my face in celebration of the sun light reflecting off the shimmering leaves.
Later in the day as the sun faded I walked back and forth across the room aware of feelings of unworthiness that were invading my precious space. My mind got engaged in trying to deal with these very old beliefs that, “I am not good enough. There is something fundamentally wrong with me. God couldn’t love me as I am.” As I was trying to out walk these lies the next invasion came in the form of, “It is my fault that I have cancer. There is something so wrong with me that I now have cancer.” It came very strong and fast.
I never really understood what the furies were that the ancient Greek playwrights referred to in our classical literature. Remember the movie Ghost with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore? When the bad guy is swept away at the end by dark screaming shapes? That is what these furies were like. In a sweat I remembered the prayer beads.
Clutching the beads, I crawled into my bed and pulled the covers over my head and started to pray. Counting the beads, feeling their shapes, my fingers moved over the smooth roundness of each. I was out of my mind and into my fingers. I counted the ten beads and when I reached the eleventh bead I begged for mercy. I have never really prayed for mercy but it was the only invocation that had any power right then. I prayed to the Beloved with each dark bead and asked for mercy on the eleventh.
For each person there is a particular name that opens the doorway to the Divine. Jesus, Mother Mary, Buddha, Amma, Babaji, Wakan Tankan. For me that night is was Gourasana. I have listened to and read his words of Truth many times.
I called his name with each dark bead, pressing very hard with my fingers. Over and over, around and around. The harder I pressed the more the furies receded into the background. Each bead and each pressing into the bead became very immediate. It was all I had. Each bead, each invocation, each prayer in the immediate present. Gourasana, Gourasana, Gourasana…. On the eleventh bead I prayed for mercy.
I experienced the truth that all I have is the present moment. It was either be terrorized by the howling self-doubt or press on the bead and pray. The past or future had no impact on the situation I was in. It was only a choice of right now. I chose the beads over and over asking for His help, calling for God’s mercy at intervals.
The Lord’s warmth began to fill my being as the night moved . With His comfort I began to pray for other people on the eleventh bead. I asked mercy for family, friends, some who were alive and some who were dead. As I thought of them my love for each person emerged, our history was played out and any unresolved issues or communications that I needed to make or let go were revealed. I spent the next two days of my retreat with the beads around my hand or very close to.
I used them every day in my quiet time upon my return home. In fact, I used them with such intensity that the threads binding them separated and I had beads rolling all over my bed one night. My friend just visited me and took the special beads home with her to mend. I look forward to them being back in my hands. In the meantime, I have a particular pearl necklace that I am carefully using for my prayer beads.
I learned the lesson of staying in the moment. That this moment is all I have. But I have to remind myself of this truth all over again each day, each night. Now. Now. Now. Lord God, Mother, Father it is You right now. Last night I sat in bed and heard the geese calling on the lake, their voices invoking longing as the sounds echoed across the water. I was in another moment of mind in motion. Then I tuned into the geese and was flooded with the reminder that it is very simple. It is as simple as listening to the geese fully, hearing them calling, and dropping into my heart with gratitude for God’s love and mercy.