Sunday, November 27, 2016

By way of the dark side of the moon

Dear wonderful friends, who are putting up with notices from me in radiation and chemo land. On the one hand things are going well, in that the treatments haven’t killed me, but are apparently stomping out the cancer cells. Over 35 radiation doses I will receive 70 Grey of radiation, which is at the high end of what seems to be given. The chemo doses are once a week and seem less onerous. But the combination is something to behold… I have to eat through a tube in my stomach. I can still swallow but it hurts some, and my mouth feels raw and irritated. And I am weak, and getting weaker.  I have 16 treatments to go. Matters will get more difficult as time goes on and then begins a period of recovery. Hopefully by late January I’ll be more or less in decent shape. 

We had hoped to have Christmas in Delaware, but it seems that is not an option, so Kellee and Matthew have welcomed us to stay in Boston for Christmas. The Family will gather and the frail old man (me) will be, as always, surrounded by love and attention, provided I mind my manners.

So it seems to me I’m in the position of the space capsule being sent out around the moon, just about the disappear from contact and not to be heard from much until I come out the other side from behind the moon.  You may not hear much from me in the next several weeks. It’s OK. Contact will be re-established (unless of course crushed by an asteroid or strange beast lurching towards Bethlehem, or other cosmic events). (I’ve been watching too much SiFi.)

I’m learning a lot about “just being here.” There is really nothing I can do to make this all go away, or even keep hope alive that it is all for the good, or whatever.  It just is.  Having given myself over to the “protocol” for this particular cancer treatment, I have to let go being pissed off, upset, sad, angry, blah blah blah, and just do it. It is not a time to be sorry for myself, or even for those I love who amazingly put up with me.  And while I pray a lot, my prayer are not for release, but for endurance. This is the race I have to run, and there it is.

Many of you write, “prayers ascending.” I love that… it reminds me of ancient wise people throwing incense into the fire and watching the smoke ascend. It’s a powerful image…. The prayers ascending to the place where the Creator and source of healing is.  But I have in recent years come to believe that what is more powerful is the smudge bundle of sage in which the incense is not made to ascend before it gently caresses each of us, causing us to be changed, in this case changed into instruments of our own healing.  So I say, “prayers caressing,” like the Creator Mother’s kiss when the child is fretful and doesn’t understand.

I am these days sometimes fretful and don’t understand.  Three months ago Kathryn and I were planning a Christmas gathering of family in Costa Rica to celebrate our 50th year of marriage. This last week end the actual day arrived and I was in bed most of the day, and when up was present but not very sparky. The trip has been put off. Everything is different.  And yet everything is also just right:  There is a lot of love in this family, between Kathryn and me, among our friends. I have renewed old friendships, found some new. Kathryn and I have the great gift of many people and their love for us. It’s “prayers caressing” for sure.  And when these things happen the fretfulness and the not understanding seem to fade.

“There, there,” she said.
“After a while,
On the dark side of the moon,
The Earth rises,
And you get to go home.”

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Burning Patience

Pablo Neruda delivered a Nobel Lecture in 1971 on receiving the Prize for Literature. It is an amazing statement about poetry and life in community, and worth quoting from at length.

“I have often maintained that the best poet is the one who prepares our daily bread… The baker does majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colors, and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of community, the changing of the conditions which surround humankind, the handing over of human products: bread, truth, wine, dreams. If poets join this never completed struggle to extend to the hands of each and all their part of the undertaking, effort and tenderness to the daily work of all people, then the poet must take part, the poet will take part, in the sweat, in the bread, in the wine, in the whole dream of humanity. Only in this indispensable way of being ordinary people shall we give back to poetry the mighty breadth which has been pared away from it little by little in every epoch, just as we ourselves have been whittled down in every epoch.”

I can imagine my friends Fleda, Devon and Tom kneading the dough of daily poetry-bread, building community thereby, and restoring the whole dream of humanity. I can, on a good day, imagine myself kneading such bread. But more I can imagine “the work of all people” contributing to the bread, truth, wine, dreams, of the whole community, and in that can imagine taking my part in the restoration of human community as priest, printmaker, poet, and struggler with all the normal foibles of life, including the cancer that now preoccupies my time.

This last week was difficult for me on many fronts:

We elected a President in that awkward sort of way, where we give our popular vote to a gang of electors who are in turn pledged (mostly) by states to vote for the statewide winner in the Presidential election. And after all the rationale of just why we do this and how we do this we end up with someone who has a majority of electors, never mind who won the popular vote. It is a strange way of doing things, but there it is. So we have a new president elect – Donald Trump – with a small majority of electors apparently to his side. He will, without question, be kneading bread of some sort or another in the coming days. Secretary Clinton with the popular majority will be looking elsewhere for how she will contribute to the “bread, truth, wine, dreams of the whole community.” But I am not easily confident that either will be able to nourish the whole dream of humanity very much, at least right now.

Leonard Cohen, whose poetry and song have been part of my life even before Pablo Neruda wrote his essay, died this week. “Suzanne takes me down…” to “Hallelujah…” to the wonderfully dark and twisted workings of his mind and soul have fed me as bread and wine for a new communion in apocalyptic times. Fortunately, there is so much, because he fed himself and us almost every day, and we can always return to his poetry for nourishment.

More locally and precisely, concerning my cancer treatment, the radiation treatments this week have begun to affect my sense of taste. At least for a while bread and wine will fail the test as sacraments of community. So truth and dreams will have to come in other ways. I am learning to eat not for pleasure, but of necessity. But what kind of community does that entail? Sure, “we do not live by bread alone, but by every Word.” But how is the word made tasty? So I am afraid I am losing a grip on community as I lose taste. And I am longing for new words and signs. (Sigh.)

And this last Thursday I had to have a feeding tube put in so that as the tastiness of bread disappears and it becomes more difficult to swallow, I can circumvent the whole thing, and find nutrient without even pretending to eat.

It was, in other words, a week in which I have not been feeling very nourished at all… not the bread of politics, or the bread of singers, not the taste of common food or even the commonality of eating seemed immediately available.

And yet there has been nourishment of human community, of love, of support, even as we all have come to grips with the great puzzlements of increasing impairments.

And then I remembered Neruda’s essay, Toward the Splendid City. I remembered that Neruda began the lecture by recounting a difficult journey across the Andes between Chile and Argentina. He was, as many of us are now, on the lam. He spoke of strange small rituals in the mountains, where he and his companions left markers, as had so many others, in small sacred spaces, and how he joined in a dance high in the night sky, and how very small things – a bit of bread and some wine – made for humanity in a torturous time in his life.

So I got a copy and read it again. And there, almost at the end, Neruda quotes a prophetic utterance from Rimbaud the visionary. “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.”

He says at the close, “I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we enter in triumph the splendid City which will give light, justice, and dignity to all people.” (translation my own).


So I say to my friends it is indeed a time for burning patience. The necessities of bread, truth, wine and dreams are all there, they are our gifts to one another.

And they are sufficient.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

One Step at a TIme.

One step at a time….  first day of treatment.

So Pogo steps out on the water, very tentatively, and his foot sinks in… and he smiles and shrugs and wades.  At the end of the movie the Da Vinci Code, the last living descendent of Jesus Christ puts her foot on the water of a pond, and it too sinks in… and she smiles and shrugs and steps back.  Maybe, she says, I can try that one about water into wine.

It turns out the miracle of walking on water is not given to many of us. Most of us have to wade or swim or step back for another day. And we don’t often think of simply wading or swimming or stepping back as miracle. But it is… the sign of that miracle is the shrug and smile.

The miracle of one step at a time is at hand… and I am a participant.  Yesterday was my first day of treatment… Radiation and Chemotherapy both. The rest of the week radiation only.

It went well. The mask when cold shrinks a bit and feels like it is choking. That passes, but I can be thankful that I don’t seem to have the panic some do with enclosed spaces. The Chemo session went well. The only residual effect seems to be that my body is so unused to additional chemical stuff (aside from rum) that it just feels strange. I suddenly have to take lots of pills in addition to the stuff pumped into me during chemo sessions.  Not bad, just strange.

But it is clear that it is all just one step at a time.

At least this time there was little reaction to the chemo. I came back to Matt and Kellee’s home, settled in and ate a good dinner while children came to the door for trick or treats.

The only initial effects are pretty subtle… I know the radiation did something…things are a bit different, but I can’t really describe why.  The chemo went fine but I know I’m full of strange stuff.

I didn’t walk on water today… but it was a step forward. Today I stepped in and waded.

That was just right.

Someone asked if Kathryn was here.. Yes and no.  Yes, Kathryn is always here whispering good words in my ear, but no, she is not here in the flesh, but in Lewes where we live. She will be coming up from time to time, but there is nothing much to do watching the one step at a time slow dance of this thing. Better she lead the faster stepped dance of life and work.  I miss her very much, but that is exactly what I should be doing…. At least that part of my step (the missing her) is a dance in which we both participate…the dance over distance of knowing that she, our friends, and the dogs are all part of a world where the dance is lively, and they part of mine, which is a slow drag, one step at a time sort of dance.

Day 1 is done. 34 treatments to go.