Part 46: Almost anything I’ve wanted in my life I’ve wanted because of what I believed I’d feel once I got it. Or saw it. Or was in it. Losing weight. Success. A loving relationship. Going to Italy. And it’s not that those things didn’t have their own pleasures—they did, they do—but they didn’t give me what I thought they would. What I wanted them to. And that was relaxation. Peace. A sense of belonging to myself. Belonging here, on this earth. Even getting to the other side of having cancer—it’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong—but there is something deeper than even that. It’s possible to avoid the middleman (or middle person). It’s possible to go straight for the peace by questioning the beliefs and the conditioning, the things I tell myself that keep me from it. It’s here, it’s now. It’s not outside me.
Part 45: When I was diagnosed with cancer, a doctor recommended I do a 3-day water fast for each solstice and equinox. Just the words “water fast” made me shudder. When I was anorexic, I fasted at every change of the season for a month. Ten days on water and the rest of the time eating lightly. I told myself it was because fasting cleaned my body from the sugar I binged on, and that it restarted my immune system, but I was lying. What I really wanted was to lose weight. And lose weight I did. I looked like a skeleton (but when I looked in the mirror, I still saw fat).
Enter the new fasting craze and my cancer doctor. He said I could reset my system after radiation. So, I convinced myself to do a three-day water fast. I told myself it was because of having had cancer. Also, that it would help the bloated feeling that might be from taking Evista. By the second day of the fast, I wasn't sleeping, my heart was practically crashing out of my chest, I could hardly walk and my hands were shaking. And although I don’t like quitting something I’ve committed to, I stopped fasting because I didn’t want to go through one more day with my heart beating wildly and my nervous system vibrating like a hummingbird.
One of the hardest things we do is discerning the difference between what sounds like a good idea and what fits our bodies, our lives. And to make a U-turn when what we’ve decided isn’t working. The tricky thing is that change always comes with discomfort otherwise we’d never change. Was it worth it to go another day for the idea that I would reset my immune system? No. But it was worth the try. There are other things I do that are uncomfortable because they take me out of my safe comfort zone. Those things enliven me, give me vitality, help me be more myself. And it turns out that breaking the fast after two days was the true coming out of my comfort zone. It was an act of tenderness. What a turnaround.
Part 44: I bought three Amaryllis plants from Whole Foods a month ago. Then I waited. And waited, until I was convinced I got duds. They would be the only Amaryllis plants that were never going to bloom. I got snookered again. And then like magic, it all started. The buds got fatter and fatter. They got red. They looked like they were going to burst and then, they did. They burst open, further and further and now—it’s been at least a week—they are showering their beauty on me, Matt, the kitchen sink but mostly on anything, everything that happens to look, see, pay attention.
They are like us. For the longest time, it seems as if we are dormant. Surviving and standing still, and then, suddenly, the color begins. The buds get bigger and bigger until we open. We bloom.
In this new year, I wish you trust in the process.I wish you steadfastness even when it seems as if nothing is happening.I wish you understanding that your way is not the same as anyone else’s.I wish you the confidence that greets every challenge—and there will be many—with the knowledge that this is what it is like here in earth school.And I wish you the wisdom to know you already have and already are everything you wish for.
Part 43: I’m thinking about the end of the year (and the end of my ersatz Chanukah-bush-Christmas tree outside our front door). I’m thinking about what this last year has brought in addition to the pandemic and mask-wearing and sheltering in place (and that’s already a lot). Oh, yes, and on the personal level, there is and was living with and through cancer. But this post is about something even more personal. When I ask myself what is the biggest shift of this year, how I am different this year from a year ago at this time, it has to do with not believing my thoughts. It used to be that when I had an opinion about something or a feeling about what someone did or said or a thought about what should be happening that isn’t happening, I’d believe myself. I’d believe that since I was thinking it, that was the way it should be, needed to be and I was right. They were wrong and wouldn’t everyone be a lot happier if I was in charge. Yup. But something shifted this year because more and more I realized that my thinking led to my feeling and my feeling led to acting from that feeling and off to the races I’d go. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’ve paid attention to the moment a thought wanders in after which a whole world gets created. She should. She shouldn’t. He should. He shouldn’t. Really? Should she/he/they be different just so that I can be comfortable or right? What about me asking myself where she/he/they snag my heart, feel into it and take responsibility for whatever I am feeling. It’s so freeing. It’s no longer about being anyone’s victim, only about noticing where I get caught and questioning that.
Part 42: I’m thinking about feet. I’m thinking that I never really liked my feet. They are wide and there is an extra bone in each of my smallest toes which made walking on high heels impossible painful. When my mother brought me my first pair of navy blue heels from Chandler’s on Ditmars Boulevard in Flushing, I felt so grown up. Grown up but hobbled and in pain. And I blamed my feet. I’m thinking about the woman at our recent retreat who talked about her feet and how she had never, not once in her life, truly paid attention to her feet. On that particular retreat day, she’d taken a shower and realized just how much she depended on her feet. They supported her, they carried her, they allowed her to walk, move, drive. On that day, she washed her feet, she put lotion on her feet but mostly, she noticed her feet. She paid attention to her feet. And it was that simple act of paying attention to what helps literally ground and carry her that brought the tears.
Part 41: Yesterday was a year since the lumpectomy. I was planning on doing some kind ritual or lighting a candle when I took down the altar that had gotten created piece by piece during the first few months after the diagnosis. Then a pod friend came by with some beautiful flowers and placed them in an arrangement behind the altar, which meant that the whole thing had to came down at once.
I could have reconstructed it after she left, but it was already down, over. Plonk. And as I stood looking at the pieces that now didn’t carry the meaning they did a year ago, I realized that is exactly how it goes: The past is gone. What meant something a year ago doesn’t mean what it did now. Because now, something else is happening, unfolding. It’s not that having had cancer is in the past. It is with me now, part of me, and if I ever forget it, the pain in my left breast reminds me to come home. But the drama of it is gone. The need to mobilize my thinking, energy, resources around the big C has dissolved like the altar. There are still pieces that I attend to—what I eat, how I move that left arm, the imprints it made on my mind. And the biggest piece, the true gift of it, is that it highlighted what mattered most to me. It allowed me the visceral understanding that everything ends, every life ends, and that I could die any time. I’d heard that a thousand times in a thousand teachings, but cancer brought it home. And so practicing kindness, disengaging from my conditioned reactions, popping out of being a victim became and becomes even more important because I don’t want to leave this life half-cooked.
Part 40: Tonight is the sixth night of Chanukah—the festival of light and miracles (as legend has it that there was only enough light for one night in the rededicated Temple of Jerusalem but somehow, the light multiplied and increased to eight nights). Dreidels are a big part of the season—usually they are spinning tops that children play with and adults, it turns out, gamble with. But not Izzy’s dreidel!
So, happy season of multiplying and increasing light no matter what our situations, no matter what our health conditions are. Cancer or no cancer, take it from Izzy who is always ready to prance and play.
Just for this moment (because what do you have to lose?) let the light multiply. Let it increase. Let yourself feel the joy, the play, the wonder that is beyond through under and above any passing situation.
Part 39: I’d always wanted a soft, fuzzy angora sweater and on the day the breast cancer was diagnosed, I bought this one during my previously mentioned shock shopping. The sales woman’s nose was pierced in three places and a serpent tattoo wound up her right arm and her kindness disarmed me. “Here," she said, "it looks like you could use something soft". But after I took it home, I couldn’t wear it. Just looking at it reminded me of Dr. Lockhart’s—the radiologist’s—hands, the biopsy needles, his words: "you have cancer alright." Many months have passed and I’ve kept it folded in my closet, kept looking at it, kept thinking of that day. But last week, I realized that I was replaying that day over and over every time I looked at the sweater, and so Dr. Lockhart didn’t only tell me those words once, he’s told them to me a thousand times this past year.
Every time I think of him, every time I think of that day. And I realized that it didn’t have to be that way. The angora sweater was still soft, fuzzy and whatever that day was, it already was. I decided to reverse the sweater—wear it backwards, put the buttons in the back. And reverse my thinking: yes to the diagnosis that day because it already happened. No to keeping softness out because that is now. So I wore the sweater and both things existed: the year of cancer, the sweater of softness. It’s possible, even in the midst of anything, everything, and in this dark season, to turn towards joy. To invite softness. To receive it wherever it may be found.
Part 38: A few months after the breast cancer diagnosis, I kept asking myself what I was learning, seeing. I think I expected epiphanies, revelations, huge changes in the way I saw, felt, experienced. But what’s happened instead is that I see that it’s not about new revelations, it’s about living the life I already have. It’s about, as the Zen master said, eating when I’m hungry and sleeping when I’m tired. It’s nothing fancy. It’s about seeing, actually seeing what I see: the parade of clouds, how they are constantly changing. Looking up not down. Landing fully in this life I’ve been given. When I do that, nothing is missing. If cancer teaches me that, it’s given me everything I’ve ever wanted.
Part 37: This is a photograph of me (although you can hardly see me) during the twice-a-day radiation treatments I received. I’m posting it because I’ve been reading a lot about breast cancer this week and a friend died of breast cancer last week. So it’s been on my mind and I’ve been feeling into it again. What it’s like now. What it was like then. During the radiation treatments, I would sometimes feel as if I was hanging on a meat hook in hell. They were other worldly—having eighteen catheters stuck into my breast emitting so much radiation that I could not fathom the whole process—and it took a lot of determination to keep going. There were days when I thought, no more, I can’t do this. And then I would notice the faces of the people who administered it, and the way they tried to make me feel comfortable, and the beautiful images of nature and animals in the slideshows they created for people to watch during the treatments. Matt was really sick during that week and so couldn’t offer much support, and as the treatments were in Arizona, I felt alone. But not alone at the same time. There were huge gorgeous cacti and there was good food to eat and I still had a functioning body and there was kindness. So much kindness. It is possible to go on a screed about cancer. About the medical industrial complex. About being sucked into the corporate money-making part of it. About the fact that the people who recommended the treatments also benefited financially from some of the treatments. And sometimes I did. Sometimes I went down with it all. But if I had stayed there—hanging on that meat hook in hell—hell would have been what I saw, felt, knew. I would have been having cancer and also, having it in hell. A double dose of perceived suffering.
Cancer can be terrifying. And there is much to rail against. It is also a teacher. It is also an invitation to be curious about what I feel about my body, my life. But even more than that, it is another chance for me to put my so called money where my mouth is. And my mouth—i.e., the words that come out of it, which are a result of what I believe and feel—is all about the meaning I ascribe to what is happening. For many years, with compulsive eating, my way has been to look and see and be curious about what everyone calls horrible, terrible, must get rid of now—and to see what wants to be understood and felt. It’s never only been about the food or weight, although that is part of it. It is always about where the food and weight parts begin: before I put one thing in my mouth. And so it was and still is with cancer.
Not looking to where it might have begun, but proceeding with my deepest conviction, which is not even a conviction, but a direct experience: that it is in the invisible world that the riches are found. That until I focus more of my time on what I cannot see more than what I can, I will always feel poor because I won’t be in touch with the source of goodness, of spirit, of love. Over and over, I have discovered that when I turn my attention inward, it is there that I find what I am looking for. Endlessly, abundantly. And it takes effort, commitment, vigilance because we are living in such an externally-driven world. It takes morning practices, evening practices (if only for a few minutes each time). It takes remembering what I love, what I want most because really, what else is there?
Part 36: A very kind friend sent us these pod outfits to wear during Thanksgiving dinner outside with our two (and only) pod members. He sent us four of them because he was certain that once our friends saw us in them, they’d want to steal them. They make me laugh constantly.
And here we are, two days before Thanksgiving. I can remember the Thanksgivings when I was in college, when I went home to New York, when my parents were still married. I also remember pumpkin pies being thrown, tears cried, sadness all around. The holidays are always such a mixture of remembering, wishing, idealizing, nostalgia—and for some of us, food. And food and food. But before the food, comes the thoughts that lead to the food.
Comes the bingeing on those thoughts that leads to the bingeing at the table or refrigerator or stove or bed. Holidays and bingeing used to be synonymous for me. I took them as a chance to eat what I wouldn’t let myself eat without guilt at any other time of the year. But then I realized I could actually be kind to myself and that bingeing wasn’t kind. It’s been a long time since I’ve binged on food, though I am still working on the thought-binges.
But here, now, not in the past, not imagining the future, there is so much to be thankful for. Not just come Thursday but now and now. Feet, air, showers, stars, birds, friends. The list goes on. Even with the repercussions of cancer, especially with the repercussions, it’s so good to pause and realize all I have and all we have despite all we have lost. We still have so much.
Part 35: Last year at this time, I first found out about the cancer in my breast. Last year and much of the beginning of this year—for the first six months—cancer was uppermost in my mind. What to do, which surgeon to pick, whether to get radiation, what kind of radiation. Like that. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Yes there were other things going on—life itself. Izzy, Matt, writing, teaching, friends and in the back of my mind, cancer. But that changed because everything changes. Thoughts of cancer are still here; my breast is not the same breast and I’m still in some degree of pain so am aware that something major happened on that side of my body and I continue to shower it with appreciation for coming through so much assault with grace. But what I am aware of is how when something big (or little) is going on, it seems as if it’s never going to end, never going to change. And then it does.
This is a photograph of me in front of the hall at Asilomar, where we taught our retreats for years. When we were there, I didn’t consider that we wouldn’t be there again. I thought we would always be there in November. And now we’re not. Yes, Covid makes it clear that things you thought would last forever don’t last forever, but that was always true. Everything changes. Everything ends. (Where, for instance, is the puppy we brought home seven years ago? Gone! Where did Matt’s brown hair go? Gone! And my non-sagging neck? Gone!) It’s good to remember that during the good times and the hard times because during the hard times, a year of cancer, it’s helpful to remember that even that will end. And during the good times, it’s helpful to remember that we can have all the goodness, we can take it in, and in that moment, it feels infinite. We can have infinity, we just can’t have eternity.
Part 34: When I’d go to New York, I’d almost always spend a few days in the city before heading out to Long Island to see my family. My friend Marni from high school and I would spend an afternoon either schmoozing at her apartment, going to a museum, or shopping as if we were Eloise at the Plaza and had a fancy life. Marni took this photo of me and the purse I didn’t buy. Then we went to a diner for lunch and ate lentil soup, while Matt and his friend Mike (they too were old friends, taught English together years before) went to look at Monet’s Water Lilies at the Museum of Modern Art.
This year, Marni and her husband got Covid. They are recuperating but slowly. Matt’s friend Mike died of Covid late in March. I haven’t been to New York to see my family in over a year, what with cancer, cancer treatment and Covid. I don’t know when the next time is that I will see my mother, brother, Marni.You never know when the last time will be that you see a particular face, act like Eloise, sit for hours in a coffee shop. I ask myself sometimes whether I would have acted any differently if I had known I wasn’t going to see Marni for a long time. If, when I saw Mike on the corner of 55th and 5th, I knew he was going to die. Would I have memorized his face, Marni’s face, the faces of my brother, my mother, my cousins?
I don’t spend too long on that question, though, because in some way, energy still follows attention and attention lights up everything it beams on. Although Covid has landed in our lives and seems to be having another wave, it doesn’t take a pandemic to remind me to slow down, pay attention, take in the good, be present. Because what I know, what I want, is to live while I am here, as fully as possible. I still have that chance, even now, even during a pandemic. I can choose, keep choosing, and be aware when I am not choosing, to pay attention. To have reverence for this human life and to question anything that closes me from that. Anything that stirs up fear, hatred, judgment. Although I may never know when the last time will be, I can treat anything—the sky at night, the sound of a friend’s voice, the chard we just planted—like it’s the first time I am seeing it. Which brings the same kind of awe as if it were the last time.
Part 33: I went for my first mammogram a few days ago, the first since the surgery. And I kept noticing, in the days leading up to it, there was trepidation, hesitation, dread. And I kept asking myself about my thoughts because I now know—you know this too—that it begins with the story you are telling yourself. The story I was telling myself about the mammogram had a lot of what if’s and I don’t want to’s and I’m already in pain, this is going to be awful. The truth was that it was a breeze. It didn’t hurt. The technician was very kind and everything I thought was going to happen, didn’t. And the mammogram was good, clear, fine. Yippee. But the biggest learning was once again, about my thoughts which are the basis of the many stories I tell myself.
For the longest time, I believed my stories. I felt strongly about my opinions. And when I was first working with my relationship with food, my thoughts about myself were dark, scary, full of failure. It’s only been recently that I’ve realized that before I binged on food, I was bingeing on my thoughts about myself and food, which led to the actual binge. It starts in the head. It starts with what I tell myself. When I change the story, I change the feelings. When I change the feelings, I change my behavior. I don’t try to make the feelings go away. I don’t try to tell myself that if I am feeling sad, I’m not feeling sad. I allow myself to feel what I feel and I also question the meaning I am giving to those feelings. Of the many practices I’ve taken on over the years, this has probably been the hardest. Harder than meditating every day. Harder than practicing loving-kindness to myself, to others. But it’s worth it.
Part 32: One of my first teachers, Stephen Levine, said, “Hell is not fire and brimstone, not a place where you are punished for lying or cheating or stealing. Hell is wanting to be something and somewhere different from where you are.” I was in my twenties when I heard him say this, and it’s come back to me over and over through the years. It sounds so simple, so true and yet so easy to dismiss. I’m thinking of this again today as I read through the questions that many people asked about our call tonight because so many of them are about wanting to skip over where we are and push through to how we want it to be. I deeply resonate with this desire to think or wish or push myself to be somewhere and someone different than I am. To be someone who is less triggered by certain situations, less contracted in her heart, less attracted by sugar. Someone without cancer in her life. Someone who had a different childhood. As I’ve been reading through the questions and hearing the dilemma again—which is that every single one of us, cancer or no cancer, eating challenges or no eating challenges, has a difficult time accepting where we are. In myself, I notice that when I do or say or feel something that doesn’t match what I think I should do or say or feel, a judgment arises: haven’t I already been though this? Isn’t it time I get over it? When will it end? And here’s what I know: until I accept/allow/open to exactly where and who I am, no movement is possible. It’s hard to change something that you don’t even want to admit is happening.
Sometimes I forget, as I walk from the kitchen to my desk and back to the living room, that we are not alone. But as I read through the questions, I keep being reminded of both the potential gloriousness and the misery of being human. It really helps to remember that we aren’t alone by hearing live voices, by telling our stories. It helps to remember that help exists. That there is a way out of suffering.
Part 31: Once you’ve had cancer you can never not have had cancer. First, there is its diagnosis. Then the shock, the decisions about what to do. There’s taking action and then there is what follows the action. For me, it’s the still-pain in my breast, the ongoing tightness in my shoulder from protecting my breast by unconsciously leaning forward. There is the ongoing treatment. And debate about what diet is best (meat, no meat, low carbohydrates, low protein, high protein, no sugar, a little sugar). But really, what is left is the physical part—the ongoing discomfort—and my (sometimes) belief that I would be better, happier if it all went away. The preference for a body, a way of being alive that I don’t have.
War. It starts here, in my own mind when I am fighting what already is. Once you’ve had cancer, you can never be someone who didn’t have cancer. The same is true with compulsive eating: Once you have suffered through the pull to eat when you aren’t hungry, body-size issues and having enough food or anything else, it’s as if you have a raw nerve in the food/eating department. You’re sensitive to food-weight-goings-on. I say this because although it’s been many years since I’ve suffered about the size of my body and/or what to eat, it’s still a raw nerve for me. And there have been many times during these last few strenuous months that I’ve thought: It sure would be nice to eat right now. I don’t usually turn to food then, but each time it floats through my mind, I remember what it was like to have food be my comfort, my ally, my relief from the pressures of daily life. I will never be someone who didn’t have food stuff. Who still, decades later, doesn’t think about food during stressful times (sometimes). Whose weight didn’t swing up and down by eighty pounds. Often. Once you’ve used food to comfort, numb and distract yourself, you will never be someone who didn’t use food. And that’s fine. The process of that, the hills and valleys of working with it, is what makes you you. Every single thing we’ve been through is what it took to get us here.
Part 30: Oh, laughter. A friend made and sent me the Izzy video awhile back and it made me laugh. Still does. Today, election day, I want to remind everyone that laughter is essential. That realizing that no matter what happens today, we will be here tomorrow. And the next day. Unless an asteroid hits the earth and takes us down the way the dinosaurs went down. I am reminding myself today (and every day) that what I value most is always accessible, in every single moment, but especially now because that’s where we are. Now. No matter if we have cancer, are dying of ALS, are getting old, are living in fear, we can stop right now and direct our attention. It’s our greatest power. To laugh, to come home, to hang out in a wide meadow of awareness regardless of who wins or loses. There is something that never changes. That doesn’t depend on winning or losing. If only all of us actually believed this. If we acted on it, the world out there would no longer be a screen upon which we focus our opinions, beliefs, feelings from in here. We would be lit. What would it be like to be lit? To live without needing to be right or certain that we know what’s best for everyone. Along with voting for president, I am voting for this: lit-ness. And I am not waiting for a win out there because when I vote for this “in here” I have already won.
Part 29: When we moved into our 1960 California ranch house twenty-two years ago, it was raining in thirty different places inside the house and there was a broken-down swimming pool outside. I don’t like being cold or wet, so raining inside was not a plus. Neither was the swimming pool, as my preferred place is on terra firma. Give me ground. Give me earth. I’m not a dolphin. I’m not an otter. Then, after the cancer diagnosis, one of the people with whom I consulted suggested I take a three-minute cold shower every morning. But I don’t like being cold or wet, I said. Try it, he said. It’s okay to scream, he said. He told me it was good for “upregulating the parasympathetic nervous system.” For relaxing. As I am not the most easy-going person around, I decided to try it.
The next morning, I stepped into the shower and turned it to cold. I screamed. Matt came running to ask if I was okay. Fine, I said, in between screams and through chattering teeth. I might have made it one minute that day. Maybe thirty seconds. But I did notice that when I stepped out of the shower, I felt invigorated, exhilarated, unusually alive. “That’s because you are no longer being thrashed by ice cold water,” Matt suggested. Maybe. But I was willing to keep up the experiment.
Then, two months ago, the physical therapist I am seeing for the surgery scars in my breast suggested I get to a swimming pool daily and walk while extending my arms. I said that I didn’t know of swimming pools and then of course, I remembered that there’s no place like home. Good old Glinda. Twenty-two years and I’d only been in our swimming pool three times because…I don’t like being cold or wet. In fact, I had some Ayurvedic wisdom backing me up: according to the type of my body (in that system), cold is not conducive to well-being. So there, I thought. No wonder I don’t like being cold. Or wet. But I am willing to try almost anything once, and so I decided to step into our swimming pool (which, thankfully, we hadn’t filled in with dirt the way I had wanted to do when we moved in). And I decided to do the walk-swim at night because I’ve come to love darkness and the mystery of night.
That was six or eight weeks ago. Now, in addition to my morning cold shower, I have a nightly ritual: I take a hot shower, run outside, plunge into the pool. Walk back and forth, back and forth, swinging my arms, looking at the stars, the moon, being immersed in night. Sometimes I scream when I first get in. But then somehow, after about three minutes, I melt into the cold and become the water, the arms, the moon. And the trees. They look so different at night. I walk, I walk until I can’t tell the difference between the water, the cold or me and at some point, I know it’s time to get out and run back into the shower.
I’m writing this to say that people change. That no matter how rigid or fixed an idea becomes—I’ve lived with the belief, the conviction that I don’t like cold or wet and now, I seem to crave it. I look forward to it—it’s possible to work the edge of it. To slowly let down into it and in so doing, change your idea of who you think you are, which is to say: everything.
Part 28: There is cancer and there is fear. And there is fear of cancer. And then, there is just fear. Cancer is what it is: rapidly proliferating cells. A physical condition. But it’s the fear that accompanies it that is so debilitating. I’ve been noticing this often these last months in northern California, particularly this last week when we had what the weather forecasters called “an extreme wind event” — and what they said was the worst fire condition so far this season.
It’s been a pretty extreme season, so hearing that the worst yet was still coming triggered fear. With fear, came shut down, contraction. Once we did all that we could do — have our bags packed, arrange for an evacuation place to sleep — I started noticing that reacting to the fear rather than meeting it was corrosive. It reminded me of the fear of cancer before the diagnosis. And after the diagnosis. And before the surgery. And radiation. And each time, it was a matter of meeting the fear. Because the thing about fear is that if what I fear never happens, I have already lived through it in my body, mind, heart. And while I was doing that, I was missing what was actually here. Sky, feet, breath. And if what I fear does happen and I am in my body and not shut down, I can make a wise decision about what to do, where to go, how to act. Each time, the process is the same, no matter how many times fear comes or goes: Noticing where it is located in my body. Even welcoming it. Each time I did and do that, whatever I am welcoming and feeling changes, opens, relaxes. Everything is welcome here.
Part 27: I went to the surgeon’s office the other day, and then to the oncologist’s office and was told it’s time to have a new round of tests. Another mammogram. An MRI. And for a brief second (well, okay, maybe it was a few hundred seconds), I thought of all the women I know who don’t have breast cancer and don’t have to have their breasts crushed and their necks torqued every six months and I had a moment of resenting this body. This beloved body that really is doing the best it can. I caught the thought as it flew by and before I had a long drink of resentment and victimhood. And I thought of my erstwhile therapist who was just diagnosed with stomach cancer. And my friend who just had a stroke. And another friend who has a heart murmur. And I remembered that this is earth school and that my body, our bodies are our loyal companions and constant teachers.
Some bodies have arthritis, some have digestive difficulties, some have diabetes, some have heart disease, high blood pressure, migraines, hurt knees or hips. Some have pelvic floors that slosh like waterbeds. Every body has something, and some bodies have cancer. This is earth school and that’s the way it goes. And lucky us that we are still inhabiting this body and are able to learn what it has to teach us, which, number one is: If you fight what is going on, if you resent it, you suffer. Your body suffers.
No one wins. When you open, and at the least, allow yourself to touch whatever it is revealing, well, that’s when everything changes. That’s when you free yourself even in the midst of arthritis, sloshy pelvic floors, diabetes. Cancer.
Of course, this doesn’t stop you—or me—from adornment of said body. Here is my latest: It’s a lymphedema sleeve, and although I don’t have lymphedema, I also don’t have tattoos and so this is my pretend tattoo. And although I’m supposed to use it when I fly and I’m not flying, I still get to marvel at its colors and adorn this beloved body, shower it with beauty.
Part 26: I know, I know, I’ve written about blame and cancer before, but as blame keeps coming around in so many forms, I wanted to write about it again. When my breast was first diagnosed with cancer, and after the shock, I went through different periods of blame: myself (what did I do to cause this?), my surgeon (who was non-relational and didn’t offer much guidance), my history with food (the sugar, the sugar, and the fact that I didn’t eat real protein until I was 30 years old). And every time, every single time, it felt awful. I didn’t help anything, it kept me spinning in my mind. It shuttered my heart. Wham.
It occurred to me the other day that blaming myself (or anyone else) was like compulsive eating. In the same way that eating takes the focus away from what is actually going on (feeling sad, hopeless, angry, joyful, happy, lonely) and puts it on food, then guilt, then shame, blame also shuts down whatever is going on. If I am feeling sad about a situation or interaction—let’s say a friend has said something that I found hurtful—and I immediately go into blaming myself for my part of what happened, I never get to feel either the impact of what she said or be curious about what is going on for her. It’s as if, with both compulsive eating and blame, my heart shuts down and all I end up feeling is bad about myself. Blame (and compulsive eating) is like throwing sand in the wheels of sensing, feeling, thinking clearly.
What I’ve been doing recently, since blaming myself used to be a favorite pastime, is noticing the collapse in my body—stomach sinking, heart closing, feeling like I’m two inches tall—and then backtracking and asking myself about the story I am entranced by. “You did it wrong” always shows up in one form or another. And then, I stop. I just stop the blame, like stepping outside a trap. And I ask myself what I’d be feeling if I wasn’t blaming myself (or someone else, because it turns quickly to blaming someone else. Blame is blame, and if I’m willing to blame myself, I’m also just as likely to blame someone else). The thing about blame is that if it worked, we’d all feel better when we do it, and we don’t. Just so with food. If it made anything better for longer than five minutes, we’d feel great whenever we binged. Or ate when we weren’t hungry. And we don’t. It’s okay to feel the full range of feelings. To have hearts that are vulnerable, open, willing and not shuttered over by blame or ice cream.
The photograph is of Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. And me. Reminding myself that compassion and kindness is always here, in the background, waiting to be noticed.
Part 25: I often am up in the middle of the night these days, and last night, as I walked outside under the blanket of stars, I was remembering what it was like to “just have cancer.” The days—they were just here, weren’t they—of attending to what, who, where, when of the tumors. I was remembering that because this time is so, as my friend calls it, “multi-factorial.” So many different challenges. We in Northern California still have our bags packed for evacuation just in case. We are having a string of very hot days, and with the lack of humidity and the drought, any ember could set a fire. When I go to sleep every night, I know there is a chance a siren might wake me up and a voice on a loudspeaker might tell me to evacuate. There is also: the pandemic, the ingrained racism, the election, the polarization of views. (A few of my close friends read their versions of news, listen to their podcasts, and come to conclusions based on what they read and listen to. Very different than where I find myself). And I’ve been watching a beautiful David Attenborough documentary—“A Life on Our Planet”—about the earth and the possibility that we are facing a fourth extinction. Just having cancer was simpler than post-cancer treatment, the pandemic, the fires, the birds dying, the racism, the polarization of views, the possibility of violence during and after this upcoming election.
Last night, as my mind was traveling into outer space with questions like: are we going to have a civil war? Are we as a species going to survive ourselves? Is that pain in my breast more cancer?, I remembered that no matter what, the work is still the same. Whether I have cancer or not. The practice is still what it always was: to come back to my body. To feel my feet on the floor, the sensations in my legs, arms, chest. To breathe. To not what’s here now because my mind is wildly speculating about what might be there then.
That’s the thing: to come back, and back and back. Because we have no idea what is going to happen next week or next month or after the election but we do now what is happening now. Breath. Feet on floor. Walls. Stars. Wagging tail of dog. Safety here, now. And I don’t want to miss one second of it.
Part 24: I never thought I’d get married. I never thought I’d meet someone who I’d want to spend every day with. I used to imagine being with Richard Chamberlain (he was, after all Dr. Kildare, and as it turns out, gay although I didn’t know that then), but I could never imagine anyone real, anyone I’d met wanting to spend their days with me. Because I had so many judgments about myself — my intensity, my ambition, my many foibles — that it seemed like it would take an imaginary Dr. Kildare to want to be with me.
Today is my 29th wedding anniversary. And I’m writing this Cancer Chronicle to celebrate that and to celebrate love.
Here’s to love, everyone. Here’s to loving ourselves. Here’s to being the love of our own lives. And here’s to the miracle of someone, anyone seeing and loving our imperfect selves.
Part 23: I was going to write about something else today, but then realized I didn’t want to rush past slowing down, which is what Tuesday’s post was about. Slowing down. In addition to the cantaloupe, there was someone at our eating meditation who didn’t like what she chose to eat: avocados and eggs. It’s boring, she said. When she looked around at what other people were eating, their food looked better. Their food looked sexier. Their food looked like what she should have chosen. That impulse to look “over there” and think that “there" is better than “here." Then she slowed down. She climbed out of her mind and into her body. She started tasting the eggs, then the avocados and suddenly she realized that the world was on her plate and that what she had chosen, what she already had was divine, was perfect. She wouldn’t have realized that if she hadn’t taken time, if she hadn’t slowed down. And because she slowed down, she could take in, allow herself to have what she already had.
I think of this a lot. I was definitely a person who kept looking over there, convinced that there was better than here. What I didn’t see was that the habit of looking outside myself didn’t allow me to look here, to see what I already had. Before the diagnosis of cancer, I remember thinking that I wish I could go to my own funeral. I wish that I could hear, see, know the love that people express for a dead person (moi) while I was still alive. After the diagnosis, and with the care of friends and Matt, I started to see that I hadn’t been seeing what I already had.
I was rushing past it, just like the woman rushed past the eggs and avocados, thinking that other people had it better. It was an old habit, a childhood yearning that stayed around. And although cancer pierced the trance of that, it still takes awareness, effort to keep coming back to the fullness, the love of what is already here. Even during Covid, even with the smoke-filled air, even in chaos, there is still the space, the peace, the tenderness that is always here. But the mind is so busy, so convinced that something is always wrong that it takes effort. It takes the desire to slow down, to look, see, revel.
Part 22: I keep remembering the cantaloupe. At our last retreat, during an eating meditation, someone said, “I’ve eaten cantaloupe before but never like this…” It was as if she was first discovering that cantaloupe existed, its sweet enveloping taste, its smooth but full texture. The way it fills the mouth, exudes delight. Cantaloupe, cantaloupe. I have no idea what the first person who ever saw a flower felt or said, but it couldn’t have been very different from listening to the experience, the wonder of what it was like to actually take time with one bite of cantaloupe. In describing what it was like to slow down enough to actually taste what was in her mouth, there was ecstasy, sunsets, the sound of wind rustling poplar trees. Everything, everything was in one bite.
There is taking care of the body because it sounds like a good idea, sounds like self-care, sounds like everyone else is doing it so why not. And there is taking care of the body because suddenly you realize it’s a flower waiting to be noticed. It’s a cantaloupe waiting to be received. When my left breast was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I’d already been taking good care of my body: Eating non-inflammatory foods, listening to hunger and fullness signals, taking in the good, moving every day, turning digital devices off for at least an hour before bed.
But in the months since the diagnosis, and in listening to stories like the cantaloupe story, I realize that much of the time, I do what I do so that I can get on to the next thing I am doing which really means that I don’t do anything because I am usually not there when I am doing it. And so, I’ve slowed down. What used to take me five minutes takes fifteen or twenty minutes. I walk slowly. I read slowly. I write slowly. I spend long periods of time doing nothing. Being still.
Part 21: My friend Sally works with people who have cancer as well as people who are dying. She told me recently that the one thing that people who recover from cancer tell her is that they want to live the way they started living when they thought they might die. They want to remember what they love. They want to remember what is most important to them. They want to keep seeing through eyes that see the miraculous over and over. And they tell her that it’s so easy to forget to look, see, feel that way when they are well. And that used to be my experience: having been in a few major car accidents, having lost our money, having almost died from anaphylactic shock during a CT scan, I’d come out of those experiences wanting to kiss the ground, wanting to realize how miraculous a morning is, wanting to hear the music in the sound of a friend’s voice. And then I’d forget. But then cancer came along and something shifted. It wasn’t just the cancer; it was realizing that if that could happen, anything could happen. I wasn’t immune. I wasn’t special. And then of course the pandemic arrived. And then the fires, smoke, inability to breathe outside. And somehow, somehow, as challenging as it is, all these things are like bells reminding me to come back, come back to this body, this moment, this life. And to ask myself, over and over, how is this and this and this an answer to my prayer.
Part 20: I read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that the purpose of life is living. I like that because it includes every single thing that happens: experiences, thoughts, feelings. Fires. Cancer. Listening to birds. Picking up trash on the sidewalk. Pain in breasts. What I make of those, the stories I tell myself is what I experience as “life.”
This is what’s happened this week: Our neighbor’s dog was eaten by a coyote. A member of my family died of pancreatic cancer. The Bay Area is on fire with new fires. The air is not breathable without a mask. Covid cases are rising. The doctor suggested I get another surgery. Tax returns were revealed. The news. The news. And as the purpose of life is living, it's all included.
Staying sane, staying grounded is always the same process. It’s a practice. This is earth school. I keep writing about it because I have to keep reminding myself of it, again and again. Because unless I bring myself back to breath, feet on floor, butt in chair, sensations in legs, arms, sounds of wind, hum of refrigerator, I live in a nightmare of my own making.
Grieving for my family member can still happen. Sadness about the dog and the coyote keeps coming. Wearing a mask is simply that: wearing a mask. Decisions about surgery become clearer. None of that stops, it just can take place in a wide open space. And when I forget for too long, I look at these slippers. The world that includes coyotes, pancreatic cancer and death also includes redwood trees, holding hands and pink and turquoise slippers.
Part 19: “I would die to be as thin as I was five years ago when I would have died to be thinner.” (And this is a picture of me when those words were true.) I will remember that statement, made by a workshop participant, always because it so perfectly expresses how I live, how, dare I say, we all live, when I am/we are believing our stories. I was thinking about this the other day when I was waxing rhapsodic about my body and my breasts before cancer.
This is what I was telling myself: I felt better then. I felt whole then. My breast wasn’t mutilated then. My whole left side wasn’t in constant pain. I wasn’t on these hormone inhibitors. I wasn’t bloated every day. I didn’t have the feeling that an alien was inhabiting my body. Life was better then. (And implicit in all this was: Poor Me. And: I have to find a way to get that back).
Then, I remember and I hear what I am saying. See what I am doing: Speaking to myself in words like mutilated. Alien inhabiting my body. The fantasy of life being better then. And the trance of believing those words. The utter fantasy that what is going on now is worse than what was going on then, and so if only I could recreate or somehow push what is going on now away, I’d be fine. Better. Happy. The truth is that if I looked as fiercely at the advantages of what’s happening now as I do at the drawbacks, I’d be soaring. Available. Present. Able to act on oh so many things (i.e., write more letters to senators, work more on behalf of trees, birds, butterflies, think about more than myself!)
I wish I could say that I have graduated earth school, that having seen (probably more than ten thousand times) that being at war with myself never works ends being at war with myself forever. But it doesn’t. And all I can do is love that which forgets. Be kind to forgetting. Not make more war. Instead, to remember. And remember. And remember. Because, in the end, the true war is not the resistance to what already is going on but the pattern of judging the resistance to what is already going on.
Part 18: A friend spirited Matt and me off to a lovely wooded place where the air was clear. And the day after we arrived, it turned smokey. More smokey than where we had just left. It reminded me of a story my friend Sally told me during the mudslides in Santa Cruz years ago: Her good friend Molly, afraid that her house would slide down the mountain, rented a house that she felt would be safe from the slides. During the second night Molly was there, the house to which she moved slid down the hill and was destroyed. I wish I could remember now whether Molly survived, but all I remember was that we keep trying to find a safe place out there, out there, and it turns out that there is no safe place out there.
Yes, I know, my friends on the East Coast tell me the skies are clearer and that Matt and I (but what about Izzy!) should come, breathe the clean air, see the falling leaves. And another friend is planning on leaving California for the D.C. area. My friend in Wisconsin tells me we could move to her farm. My step-sister in Maine tells me we are invited to move to her farm. And it’s not that we wouldn’t ever move, it’s just that I know there is no safe place. Not because of air or the coronavirus, but because I’ve spent so much of my life searching for the next person, teaching, house, relationship, achievement that would provide love, security, safety and no matter how loved or cared for or successful I was, it was me that I had to wake up with, me that I had to go to sleep with. Before Matt wakes up in the morning and after he goes to sleep at night, it is me. It is always me. My mind. My heart. The stories I tell myself. And that, only that—my mind, my heart, and my willingness to land here, fresh, after questioning the rants, the narratives, and my history of trauma and abuse—is my safe place.
Part 17: Tonight marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year 5871. Rosh Hashanah. Big breath. The beginning of another year. The chance to metaphorically wipe the slate clean, ask: “And how then do I want to live now? What is most important?” And the chance to dance, celebrate, remember that underneath and beyond it all, joy exists. Pure foamy pink-and-orange joy because after all, in and between and beyond the fires, the cancer, the smoke, the pandemic, it’s a pretty great life. Dance with me. Evoke joy. There’s nothing better.
Part 16: I saw this photograph on Patti Smith's Instagram last week. A redwood on fire in its belly. The intensity here in Northern California, with the fires and the smoke and the lack of breathable air has been full-on. When we woke up to a tangerine sky, I felt as if I was living in a dystopic science fiction movie, and my mind, over the next few days, went careening down from there. What if and oh no.
The drama of past losses of losing everything, of feeling alone and frightened, got transposed to the future of losing everything and feeling alone and frightened and at that point, I was lost in the nightmare. Until I remembered that it was a nightmare. Until I remembered that there is no safe place other than here, in these arms, these legs, this belly that isn’t a redwood on fire. Also, and this is the same for anything, everything—cancer, Covid, fires, tangerine skies—the need to not judge or skip ahead. To not use my mind to tell me how it should be, how I should be if only I were more evolved because as soon as I do that, I lose the safe place here and just as important, I lose a true capacity to respond to fear or thoughts of loss or abandonment.
Part 15: I was thinking about control and being controlling last night, thinking about how they play through my life now. With the cancer diagnosis and treatment, and even after finishing treatment, I found myself going back on decisions I’d already made in an attempt to give myself some control of what I was experiencing in the moment. Pain, for instance. I’d tell myself, “If you hadn’t had brachytherapy, if they hadn’t stuck you with eighteen catheters through which radioactive seeds got sent to your breast, you wouldn’t be in so much pain. What were you thinking?”
It’s a lie. Hearts break. Cancer gets diagnosed. People we love leave or die. And still, still, we get to choose whether we are going to be here for the whole wild ride of earth school. And what a ride it is.
Part 14: We went to Costco donning this mask (read about it in an article about radical prevention of Covid) and the amazing thing was that no one looked at me or at us askance. I felt like I was in Star Wars at one of those crazy inter-galactic bars and so, it seems, was everyone else. When I asked for ghee with this insane mask on, the guy didn’t blink as he directed me to aisle 312. When we checked out, the cashier treated us like it was business as usual.
Part 13: It was one of my birthdays a few days ago — I think I might have mentioned that I have two birthdays a year, one that I chose, and one that I wasn’t aware of choosing, although taking twenty six hours to pass through the birth canal might have been my attempt to be born on a particular day, who knows. And on that birthday a few days ago, a friend made me a purple cauliflower mash (see picture) and I remembered what I had, what I had been given, what is already right: Gravity. What would we do without it? Tastebuds. Can you imagine not being able to taste a peach? Roses, particularly Just Joey, and the way they unfold their beauty without regard to who will tell them how beautiful they are. Hummingbirds. Dozens of them every day splaying their luminescent wings, reminding me over and over that flight can happen in any moment, every moment. My face. Years ago, after experiencing anaphylactic shock from the contrast dye in a CT scan, my face blew up, meaning it got to three times its size, broke out in blistered weeping itchy rashes and my eyes could barely open. I was teaching a retreat at the time and asked my sweet colleague if I really looked as awful as the mirror told me I looked. Yes, he said, ever so kindly. You really do.
And as always, when we lose something (in this case, my familiar face), I couldn’t believe how I had taken my face for granted. How everyone around me took their faces for granted. My husband. I never thought I’d get married, never thought anyone could put up with me (which gives you a sense of how unkind my thoughts were about myself), and here we are, decades later, continually glad to see each other, be with each other. I could mention so many more things: dogs, friends, hands, sweaters, breath, peonies. And being cancer free. Finishing treatment. Being on the other side of cancer while still learning every day about the journey. But for now, just giving thanks for life itself as the earth revolves around the sun one more time and I’m still here to witness it.
Part 12: Here’s what I find compelling about cancer, covid, the fires, the political mess we’re in. They’re like mirrors in that I get to see what I’ve always believed that I might not have questioned because I’ve taken it to be true for 1,000 years. The other day I realized a bedrock belief that I’m not sure I ever named: I’m not supposed to be joyful, to be or have enough and that if I am, I’m going to get in trouble.
When I was a child, I believed that God abandoned me. I’d pray for my parents to be happy and they got more miserable, abusive, lonely, which I took to mean that I wasn’t worth saving and something was wrong with me. This belief, by the way, is not meant to get in any discussion about God. It’s about a conviction that there will be revenge if I allow myself too much goodness. It’s about the belief that this universe is hostile and about to collapse. So when cancer appears, there is a bedrock belief that says: "See? I told you. You thought you were getting away with it but, Missy, you’re going down.”
That pattern is so mean and violent to the spirit and it lives in me until I can question it. It lives as a contraction in my stomach, as my response to “There’s a fire over the hill. You’re going to lose your house. How long did you think you could get away with loving where you live? The time has come to pay up. Misery, not joy, is your middle name.” It lives as the perpetual belief that "being vulnerable and loving is for sissies because you’re going to get smashed, so buck up and take what you can.” But as soon as I name it, there is freedom. As soon as I question it, I see that it’s not true. I see that I’ve always been taken care of, even in the most desperate moments. Even with cancer. Even this very moment, with the fires. And when I experience that, my heart opens, the world comes alive and I am available to respond to what is asking for attention (like packing for evacuation). The hardest beliefs are the ones we don’t even think of as beliefs, but as truths. We really can question everything. (The photo was taken during the radiation week in Arizona when I kept looking at those cacti and being stunned by their beauty).
Part 11: At first I thought that cancer (and having had it) was enough to wake me up. Then I thought cancer and Covid were enough. Now it’s cancer, Covid, and living on the edge of evacuation. Fierce teachers.
Our bags are packed, the smoke in the air is so thick we can’t breathe without a mask and with each step I take, I bring myself back from toppling into what if’s and fear and my mind rushing to whether I should pack the face creams and the blue cashmere sweater and the crackers I love (in addition to just the practical things: the flashlights, the heavy boots, the goggles, the dog food) because it might be much longer than three days. And seriously, practicality has never been my strongest muscle. What other people consider practical, I usually consider irrelevant. What they consider irrelevant--cashmere, almond butter, dangling earrings--I consider necessity.
But anyway, at least for today, I am continually aware that our house may burn down and this may be the last time I walk out to my writing studio. Am I even aware of my foot on the ground or am I already into disaster mode? Am I missing one of these last chances to take in what’s around me because I am already ensconced in future fear mode? Because of course, the truth is that we never know when the last time we will take a step, see a friend’s face, breathe clean air will be. It’s so hard to really believe that and to live with that on our shoulders. But when I can’t breathe without a mask, when the air is so thick that even my mask is not enough to keep the smoke out, it reminds me that we never know, it’s always like this even without Covid, fires, smoke, or breast cancer. If what I want most is a mind at peace, then this is as good a moment as any to practice it.
Part 10: Whenever I feel like a victim — they done me wrong, the cancer done me wrong, the radiation done me wrong, it’s not fair that there’s cancer, covid AND the possibility of evacuation — it’s always, always a chance for me to catch myself. Is it difficult at times? Yes. Is there pain? Yes. But that doesn’t make me a victim.
The challenge of these times — cancer, covid, the fires here in Northern California, the political vitriol, the fear — is to see how I get caught in the wave of feelings or beliefs, how I identify with them — and then come back. Always to come back. And to meet the pain, the fear, make room for it and then to ask what I can do, how I can act. In the meeting and witnessing, there is an awareness of something so much bigger than fear. An awareness that I have a choice about what to focus on.
It’s not that the fires go away when I don’t contract in fear. Or that the post-cancer protocol and thoughts and feelings associated with it are any less intense, it’s that I recognize them for what they are: thoughts, fears, beliefs. Ways to hijack my mind and with it my nervous system. I look out my window and see smoke. I feel my left breast and am aware of the pain. Those are the facts. What I do with those facts is what my suffering or lack of suffering depends on. It’s that simple. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. There is such a pull, based on a lifetime of pulls, to go down the road of pain and blame. And I don’t have to. We don’t have to. And that’s a wow. That’s freedom.
I once had a teacher who said, “it doesn’t matter how many times you forget, it only matters that you remember.” So I keep coming back, over and over. And don’t forget to look at those teddy bear sunflowers, shining on all who gaze at them.
Part 9: Yesterday when I walked out the front door, the air was filled with smoke. I couldn’t see the trees, the hills, the grass. The day before, there was a fire around the bend. And so I reached for my N-95 mask, the kind I bought during the round of California wildfires, last year.
I used to (actually, still do, but I’m not wearing them) have quite a collection of boots. My favorite black motorcycle boots with the boot belt look at me, perky and upright, whenever I enter my closet for the next pair of clean sweat pants. Now, I have quite an array of masks: the ones I wear to the store, the ones I wear to the doctor, the ones I wear to be able to breathe when there is smoke in the air. The ones I wear when the person shows up to deal with the rats—oh my God—in the house, who are eating the peaches.
This is a time of the great unwinding, a time when everything I/we counted on is unraveling. And yesterday, when I talked to a doctor about the searing pain in my breast since the radiation, she said, “getting radiation was good, but getting radiation is like having an other worldly energy entering your body, and it will take time to process that—on all the levels: physical, emotional, energetic.” Smart doctor. I’ve been feeling that there is an alien energy coursing through my body, affecting my thoughts, feelings, moods, and it was helpful to have that normalized, spoken, named.
When I saw and smelled the smoke yesterday, I thought, “No, not this too,” but the truth is that it is “Yes, and this too.” All of it. The great unwinding. The loss of control. The feeling that an alien is inhabiting my body. The need to wear masks to go anywhere. The sense that this staggering time in me, in us, in the country keeps pressing and pressing for me, us, to show up. Move beyond the no, I can’t take this to: Yes. And this too.
Part 8: After the surgery, a friend said, “I bet you’re worried about recurrence now.” I hadn’t thought about it, but after she mentioned it, I noticed the fear creeping in. And when it did, it did what fear always does: tightens the belly, contracts the heart, makes it difficult to take any kind of action.
Over the weeks, particularly as COVID has been surging again here in California and three friends were afraid they had it, I kept noticing the corrosive effects of fear. Being a catastrophizer from way back, I can really get into the whirlwind of fear. Is that pain in my breast a sign that the cancer is recurring? Did my doctor just tell me that if it recurs, I’ll need a mastectomy? What if that person I just passed breathed too hard through her mask and the aerosols (which now, it seems can project sixteen feet) reached me through my mask as I walked by? Is the scratchy throat I woke up with a sign of the virus or just a scratchy throat because I’m tired—and is this the kind of tired that is the virus kind of tired?
Oh, the mind, the mind. It can drive this person mad. And so the only thing I know to do is to keep coming back, keep returning to my feet on the floor, or, if it’s the middle of the night, the inky silence, the softness of the sheets, the comfort of the dark. What is here now. Because when I come back to what is here now, there isn’t a problem. There is nothing to be afraid of. If the cancer recurs, it recurs, and I’ll deal with it. I will know what to do. I’ll act to the best of my ability. But in the meantime, I don’t want to miss one second of this life (or one sunset) by getting tangled up in fear which always warns me that the sky is falling, the sky is falling instead of asking me to look up and notice that the very same sky is putting on a pink and orange spectacle like the one outside my window as I write these words.
Part 7: And then there’s this: everyone has something they are challenged by. For those of us with cancer, it’s cancer. A friend has a brain tumor. Another friend has prostate cancer. Two other friends have breast cancer. Another has advanced Lyme disease. Then there is the friend with advanced Parkinson’s disease. Still another friend has a serious heart condition. All this and COVID, too. Many friends have lost their jobs, don’t know how they will support their families. I keep reminding myself that this is earth school. That I am here to remember who I am beyond my conditioning, our self-images, and the ways I believe I got the short end of the stick, that I am a victim in an unfair world.
For years I believed that if I had been born to a different family, had different parenting, felt welcomed and beloved and listened to by my family, I’d be able to trust easier, feel relaxed, not be convinced that I had to prove myself, earn my existence. And maybe some of that is true. Matt, for instance, felt adored by his mother. He wakes up in a good mood. He always believes that everything will be okay. Sometimes I resent him, but only the tiniest bit and always nicely. And yet, his first love died of ovarian cancer. We lost our money. His wife—that’s moi—had breast cancer.
The challenges don’t stop. So I remember, and sometimes it takes remembering many times a day, that the challenges aren’t supposed to stop, that’s not the deal here. That “this too, this too” is the deal and it’s my job, no matter what it is, to be with it. To allow it. To not try to fix, change, improve either it or myself but to keep questioning my beliefs about it. “It shouldn’t have happened.” “It’s going to be this way forever.” “If only I hadn’t eaten sugar for 28 years, I wouldn’t have gotten cancer.” I sure can drum up that kind of insanity. Why is it insane? Because it already happened and because either messing around in the past or projecting now onto the future is a ticket to a hell realm. Better that I look, see, feel, meet, welcome, understand, question, be curious—which always leads to a kind of peace, openness, sanity, ease.
Part 6: Sometimes sadness is just sadness. Not a result of a story from the past or imaginings of the future, but because it is. For years I’ve practiced inquiry—questioning and exploring the different beliefs, body sensations, thoughts and feelings that pass through. And I’ve practiced noticing the trance of my childhood stories and when what’s happening is not what’s happening now but what happened in the past.
Recently, I’ve also practiced taking in the good of what's around me. Rewiring my brain, establishing new neural pathways. When the cancer in my breast was diagnosed, I was shocked by the visceral understanding that it could happen to me. Not just cancer but that suddenly, my life could turn. Despite my father’s death, my friend Lew’s death, my friend Linda’s (pictured) death, my beloved editor Peg’s death and the death of dozens of people I know, there was a separation between them and me. Between their deaths and me, mine. A belief that I was apart from. Special. But with a cancer diagnosis, there is no keeping death apart from. There is no amount of taking in the good that outweighs the direct experience of knowing that I will die if not now then someday. And so I realize now that taking in the good can also mean taking in the goodness of feeling anything, everything, even sadness.
No matter how the cancer diagnosis and treatment has opened me, no matter what it’s invited me to see, there have also been many losses. The loss of my life before the cancer. I will never go back to that life. It’s gone. The loss of a left breast that resembles the right breast, that hasn’t been operated on, that isn’t scarred. The loss of a pain-free breast (the scars from the surgery are itchy and painful and the oncologist says they might be that way for years). The loss of feeling special, invisible, in control of what happens. And the losses that are accruing now, all around us, in so many. When I allow the losses to be what they are without trying to antidote them with how much I still have or what I’ve gained, when I don’t try to think happy thoughts but just let the sadness be, it unfolds quietly, swiftly, grateful to be welcomed as and for itself.
Part 5: A few nights after receiving the cancer diagnosis, I had a dream that there was lion sitting outside my door, which wasn’t the door of my house now. When I saw the lion, I went into fear mode. Oh no! A lion is out there. He is going to knock the house down, eat me for dinner. Oh no. I went about trying to secure the lock on the front door, which was a flimsy hook-and-eye latch and couldn’t keep out a gust of wind, no less a 420-pound lion. Still, in a frantic whirl, I tried. And then I noticed — really looked at — the lion itself. He was huge, yes, but he was sitting in the sun, peacefully, contentedly. And I suddenly knew he wasn’t there to harm me but to protect me.
The next day, after the dream, when I walked into the medical facility for more tests, the check-in person had multiple photographs of lions pinned around her desk. And there I was, once again remembering that not only cancer but most things I fear can be prompts to ride the spiral of the long list of fears that have built up over a lifetime (especially now in our coronavirus era).
For me, the lion was a totem that all these months later, I’ve never forgotten. A totem that what I am convinced will destroy me is often, not always, an invitation to look at how often I proceed from fear without actually looking at what is asking to be seen. It reminds me of Rilke’s lines that I quoted in This Messy Magnificent Life about dragons that ”at the last minute turn into princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave; perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us."
Part 4: I have decided that being told you have cancer sets up a kind of inner archaeological dig. Back and back through many layers of thoughts, beliefs, feelings. Of course you don’t have to be diagnosed with cancer for this to happen, although I imagine that it often takes a jolt to the system (like the current coronavirus and its many ripples). But for me, it’s prompted the desire to reveal what has haunted me that I didn’t realize was still haunting me. Like old beliefs about my childhood. My mother. My father. Like the belief/certainty that “I was neglected.” And what I see now is that I’ve taken that belief/decision and transposed it on almost every relationship I’ve ever had. What I am understanding is all the places and people with whom this belief has shown up — she neglected me. He neglected me. They neglected me. Abandoned me. Seeing myself as the victim, the one who was done wrong to.
I’m not exactly sure why a cancer diagnosis would bring this questioning up even stronger, given that I’ve had forty years of therapy, but it has. (Um, a voice is now saying while rolling her eyes, do you think it could be the death factor, Geneen? Yup. I think it could be…) But whatever the reason, every time I feel like a victim, I pop out of it and question my part in it. Sometimes it feels like scratching nails on a blackboard, but even that is better than being hunkered down in they did me wrong.
Part 3: My friend Barbara accompanied me the day of the biopsy, since Matt was in New York at a conference. The radiologist had skipped the training in communicating life-threatening diseases and as he looked at the mammogram images and extracted six vials of cells from my breast, said, “you have cancer alright.” Shocked at the immediate diagnosis — I thought I needed to wait for the results of the biopsy — I devolved into a pre-verbal shut down. When I told Barbara what he’d said, she pushed back at him, the nurse, everyone she could. "But isn’t it even possible she doesn’t have cancer, she asked?" Nope, he said, it’s not. And that was that.
As we still had the whole day in front of us, I looked at Barbara and said, “Let’s go shock shopping. I am desperate to touch fabric, see color, do anything but think about cancer.” We rambled on Sacramento Street and walked into a store with clothes more appropriate for a twelve year old than for us. The skirts were too short and tight. The tops were cinched in to the point of cutting off circulation. The heels on the shoes were so tall that I was certain I’d break my neck after two steps.
With the vision of us falling down the street in skirts that rode up to our navels in tops that cut off air to our lungs and on shoes that were insanely dangerous, we sat on the floor of the store and collapsed into laughter, after which we decided to eat lunch at the restaurant next door.
Therefore, in this photograph, everything on my body is mine, especially those mirrored sunglasses which make me feel like a heavy metal singer. Do you think there is such a thing as a 68-year-old heavy metal singer with cancer who can’t sing?
Part 2: It’s so tempting when there is a diagnosis to look for a cause. And of course, being someone who — how can I say this kindly — believes that I can control things (events, illnesses, relationships, anything, everything), I did look for a cause. Here’s what I came up with: I worked too much. I didn’t work hard enough. I drove myself too hard. I didn’t drive myself hard enough. I traveled too much. Or not enough. I had an abusive childhood. I ate a diet of sugar for 28 years: Twinkies, Yodels, Ring Dings, donuts, Oreos, coffee ice cream. Oh yeah, and I shopped too much. Bought too many sweaters, boots, earrings. As I was mentally making up the list, I knew that it was fruitless. That for every situation, there are countless causes. That perhaps, as the doctor suggested, this cancer started developing 30 years ago, who knows?
One of the biggest benefits of believing I could have controlled the outcome is that I don’t have to feel the helplessness or the sheer impact of whatever the situation is. I get to believe that “If I had done ________, then I wouldn’t be feeling ___________.” Which is an incredibly seductive lie, as my years of believing that have revealed. It keeps me in judgment, shame, blame. So in my round up of “things I believed were cancer-causing,” I started asking myself instead what the invitation was now. What could this diagnosis offer me. Open for me. Because why not ask that question, since it was already here and I couldn’t magically disappear it? And what immediately came up was “Kindness.”
Despite working with compulsive eating for decades and emphasizing kindness, there was and still is a lack of it in how I turn to myself. It’s gotten so much better over the years, but still. Still. The patterns of treating myself with shame and judgment are so inscribed in this nervous system. And the willingness to fall into the pattern of having blown it is strong. So when I asked myself what the cancer was offering me, the answer came back: look at the way you treat yourself. Then I added the word “sweetheart” so that the question itself didn’t trigger more blame.
Part 1: Late last year a mammogram revealed cancer in my left breast. I haven’t written about it because I’ve wanted to keep sitting with the ripples of it—the shock, the fear, the openings. It’s been a life-altering process on so many levels, not the least of which has been the reminder that my life could end at any time.
The fact that it coincided with the coronavirus was even more of an impetus to use it as a chance to pay attention, to wake up to what I took and take for granted: beauty, love, friendship, breath, life itself. Just the word “cancer” was enough to terrify me. Within a few days, I knew that there were two levels of meeting the cancer diagnosis: the first was the physical. How big. How much had it spread. What were the actions to take, surgeons to meet, decisions to make. And the second was my state of mind. The meaning I gave to the diagnosis. I remembered when we lost our money and my friend told me that "nothing of any value had been lost." I remember how radical that was. And so, I began paying as much attention to the stories I was telling myself about the cancer as I was to the physicality of the cancer itself.
For many years I wondered who would show up if/when catastrophe struck, if I was suddenly given a terminal diagnosis, if my partner died suddenly. My story was that no one would. That love was for other people, not for me. It was an old story but I’d been telling it for so many years that it was believable. When you tell a false story a hundred thousand times, you no longer question its validity. The very repetitiveness seems to groove it as truth deep in the brain (as we can see in the news these days). But within a few days, I couldn’t deny the presence of caring, of love. This photo is of the altar of collages and cards and statues that close friends gave me. The biggest one in the photograph is the Long Life collage my friend Taj made when I told her about the diagnosis, and from there, as I told close friends and they gave statues and cards, a palpable expression of tenderness was created, almost on its own. So, the very first story that being diagnosed with cancer evoked and soon dissipated was that love was for other people. The story was that love itself is conditional, is somewhere out there, and I need to try hard to get it because there’s never enough of it.
It seems as if I have a hard enough head and a protected enough heart that it takes multiple car accidents, losing our money and cancer to pierce the trance of unlove. But I am learning, I am learning. Love, it seems, abounds.