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 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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