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.
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.