Part 82: I was talking to a friend yesterday who had breast cancer twice. I was saying that I’d hoped I’d learned what breast cancer wanted to teach me and she said, “What if you weren’t supposed to learn anything?”
What a concept. I laughed. But then I felt freed from the tyranny of my thoughts.
They go something like this: "Being faced with death is supposed to teach you something big about what’s important and what isn’t. It’s supposed to change how you live. Did it?"
Before I answer that, I’ll say that I think that anytime I use the words supposed to, it means there is harshness involved somewhere. A big know-it-all telling me that I need to do it differently. And change never happens, not really and certainly not longlastingly, when there is that voice around because then fear of reprisals are also around and fear, as we know, is not a good motivator. Change happens from acceptance, from love, from spaciousness—and from genuine curiosity.
Onto the cancer: here’s what I believe about it or anything that causes a disruption in the way we usually do things. Cancer could or could not teach me anything big. Cancer by itself is just cancer. Cells multiplying rapidly. The meaning I give to it is what will or will not teach me about the way I live. And the way I see it is that if before having had cancer, there were thought/feeling/behavior patterns that had become habituated that I knew were not loving or regenerative or nourishing, then having (had) cancer could be my catalyst for changing what I already wanted to change.
Part 81: I’m thinking about addiction today and how beautifully it worked in my life to shut down and numb myself to what was painful. It was as if the entire world closed down and all that was left was one tiny all-about-food-pinhole — the desire to eat, the decision about what to eat, the hunting and gathering phase of procuring it and then of course, the eating of it. But as Pooh said in Winnie the Pooh, the moment before he put his hand in the honey jar was better than putting his hand in the jar. The way the anticipation blocks everything out. Promises fulfillment, joy, and ecstasy. And then, it’s gone.
I know I’ve said this before, but I’m saying it again because apparently, I keep needing to hear it myself. Once you’ve been a person who used food to comfort, numb or distract yourself, that sensitivity to use things or people to turn away from the discomfort will always be there. But all that means is that yep, we’re in earth school and it’s time to learn to stay (again. And again) with uneasiness.
With discomfort. With wanting to bolt. Time to learn that we don’t need to be frightened of ourselves. That no situation has the power to reduce us to ashes or hot fudge sundaes. It’s our power to have. It always has been ours.
Part 80: In a tiny apartment in the Bronx, my mother, a ten year old, sat patiently stitching and cross-stitching blue thread through fabric, spelling out the word God. Then Bless, then Home. When I look at that needlepoint, I see the girl who created it, the hope that she would have a loving home. I see innocence. I see a bewildered child whose mother told her she was too fat. I see the child who lives in my mother’s now 92-year-old body. The child who never got the love she craved.
My mother says her mother took her shopping in the Chubby section of Macy’s. Criticized her body. Looked at her with accusing eyes. And then my mother passed it on—the body comments, the criticism, the love withheld—to her daughter. To me.
God Bless Our Home is hanging in the hallway of my home now. I see it as soon as I walk in the door and it reminds me that everyone was someone’s baby. Everyone starts out innocently, wanting to be welcomed, cherished, gazed at with tenderness. It also reminds me that until we acknowledge, accept and somehow find room to welcome the one who didn’t receive that love, we never grow up. We stay toddlers in big bodies.
If I had had my mother’s childhood, if I believed what she believed, I would have treated me the same way. As I learn to be kind to myself, to, as Mary Oliver writes, “love sorrow” and in loving it/her, allow her to grow, I become an adult. I become wise.
Look around. You’ll notice that most people, even in their nineties, are babies in big bodies. It takes fierce kindness to be an adult.
Part 79: Within the first week of receiving the cancer diagnosis, I remember thinking, “Okay, if I were to use this as a chance to review my life—almost like an-end-of-life review—what would I see? What would I want to change?
Immediately, I knew that there was still a chord of harshness in how I flung myself around. A decades-old voice of needing to make up for being damaged. It could manifest anywhere, everywhere. Yes, of course, with food since that is where it first expressed itself. But also with being tired and not wanting to rest. With allowing the motor of doing and achieving to stay in the driver’s seat.
Fast forward a year: During those months I was drinking coffee-as-second breakfast, aside from the heavenly taste of all that ghee, I knew, somewhere I knew, that coffee and me weren’t friends. That as I am already nervous-system-razzed, putting something in my body that would ramp up the razz wasn’t good medicine. Wasn’t kind. I made a beautiful ritual out of it, bowed to it, thanked it, drank it all the while convincing myself that the rapid heartbeat and the feeling that I was spinning outside my body was fine.
I stopped drinking the heavenly concoction, both because my pants didn’t fit but, more importantly, my body didn’t fit it. But the fact that I was willing to keep going, keep pushing the limits even after I was getting information to stop reminded me of what I used to be willing to do with food, mostly sweet things. But I like it, I’d say to myself. It tastes so good. Surely something that tastes this good can’t be bad for my body. An hour later, I’d crash but the next day, I’d repeat the same behavior. I wanted my body to be saying and doing something it wasn’t doing. That’s what I am calling harshness.
With the cancer diagnosis came a flood of memories of pushing myself, of not listening to my body. All the ways I still took myself to the edge. But something like that—a pattern that’s been around for more than five decades—leaves and returns, leaves and returns. It’s a progressive unwinding because the true addiction is not to a particular food or drink, but to the story about being damaged and all the ways I try to fix it. And if knowing that was not enough, and apparently it wasn’t, coffee stepped in and reminded me.
Part 78: My grandmother wouldn’t let anyone give her flowers. If you gave her a bouquet, she’d raise her eyebrow and tsk and say, what’s the point, they are just going to die.
But Nana, I’d reply, they are beautiful. Why don’t you just enjoy them now? No, she’d answer. I can’t. I look at them and all I see is that they’re soon going to be dead. (And I wonder where I inherited a fixation of death…)
But Nana, I’d say, everything is going to die sooner or later. (I was precocious for a twelve year old, having already lived through the death of Cookie, my parakeet). And Nana would say, don’t remind me. Take the flowers away.
One of the first lines of my book, The Craggy Hole in My Heart, is: I didn’t want to love anything that could die before me. I didn’t want to live through the heartbreak of death. And further on in the book, I wrote that sometimes I wished Matt would die and get it over with so that I wouldn’t have to keep anticipating life without him. What I didn’t realize, what my grandmother didn’t realize, was that in pretending to protect myself from what dies (because really, there is no protection), I was protecting myself from what lives. From what the real protection is: being fully alive. No stops.
I’m thinking of all this because it is peony season now. The first time I saw a peony, I was floored that something this gorgeous could be so unapologetic in its showiness, its beauty. That it could be so unafraid to be flagrantly alive, even for a moment.
Now it is peony season, and it is always a short season here in northern California. So I surround myself with them, from the garden and from the market and each day I remember these lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, Peonies:
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Part 77: I’ve been accidentally eating two breakfasts a day for four months (which makes me like Frodo and Sam who had second breakfasts every day).
Then, it seems, because of eating two breakfasts, I accidentally gained about ten pounds. I know this because my “boyfriend” pants are so tight that I can hardly zip them up.
Before I realized the second breakfast part, I’d been feeling as if I’d had an alien inside my body who decided to turn whatever I was eating into mountain-thighs and moon-belly. Who wanted me to gain more weight and then more.
Finally, I realized the culprit was the morning coffee to which I’d been adding a tablespoon of ghee and a tablespoon of MCT oil. And can I just say, without hesitation, it was delicious. Like having a coffee milk shake every morning and following it with a high-fat breakfast an hour later. Heaven.
When I did more research on this high-fat-Bulletproof concoction, I saw that it was designed to be used instead of breakfast, not in addition to. I’ve never been adept at following the fine print. Also, I really like eating breakfast.
Watching the weight come on and not making the connections to why was quite a process, given my history with eating disorders and body size. It brought up years of high school. Not being picked for the Kilties because I wasn’t part of the in-group, which I took to mean that I was too fat). It brought up years of feeling as if I was out of control of my body. It brought up all my associations with fat and thin and self-worth and value. And each time a negative association came up—you’re gaining weight, look at the size of your thighs, what happened to you—I’d ask myself if it was true. The weight part was true but the rest—the part about value and bigger bodies and mountain-thighs—not true. And I got to see again how deeply this way of thinking and believing is laid down in my nervous system. How it takes constant attention to question it, come back home, remind myself that the size of my body is not the size of my life. That it is possible to have thighs rubbing together and to outgrow my pants and to still, still, still shower this sweet self with goodness.
Part 76: I know I’m a bit late and that the day to celebrate mothers and mothering was two days ago. But as I am someone who believes in celebrating birthdays for six months, I figure that two days past the holiday is right on time. Also, my internet which was not working well on Sunday is fine today. Izzy sent me a card. Who knew that dogs could pick out cards and write as well as wag and lick.
Izzy sent me a card. Who knew that dogs could pick out cards and write as well as wag and lick.
She wrote that I was the best dog mother ever and that she appreciated (though really didn’t like) having her teeth brushed with chicken liver toothpaste every night.
Of course I loved the sentiment, but what I really loved was taking a moment, many moments, still doing it today, to stop and take in the sheer profusion of what it was like to be mothered, to be given everything—life, food, holding, changing, being taught to read, walk, ride a bicycle—just because. That I am alive today is because of all that. And then, to be able to turn that mothering toward myself. That’s been the biggest task. To learn to speak kindly. To feel the effect of shame and judgment and to stop. Just stop them in their tracks. That’s everyday mothering. That’s the essence of what I call fierce kindness. The fierceness of attention to what shaming and judging does in this body, and then the kindness to stop it. That’s true power.
Part 75: As I walk from somewhere important to somewhere else important, I often miss what’s actually important. What fills the heart. Ordinary beauty.
So, today, I’m borrowing the title of a poem by Nazim Hikmet — Things I Didn’t Know I Loved. Or forgot I loved until I paid attention to them again.
The riot of jasmine outside the back door.
The color orange. Morning air.
The socks that keep my feet warm.
The sound of my fingers tapping on the keys now.
What are the things you didn’t know (or forgot) you loved? (Because what you pay attention to grows. Happiness, joy, wonder. Suddenly you are in awe of having hands, a throat, a friend).
Part 74: The clearer my mind becomes, the more I know I am not my thoughts, the more my history becomes just that: history, not-now, gone. I also notice that the freer this mind becomes, the messier it gets. The more core beliefs arise. Beliefs that I didn’t know I had. Beliefs about my body. My belly. Beliefs about being and not being enough. Beliefs that say it’s my fault. (What is my fault? Everything). Coming home is a process. It happens, most of the time, bit by bit, piece by piece. Old beliefs are named when they are ready to be named. Someone can say something a hundred times—it was never your fault—but until I am ready to see it, question it, let go of it—it doesn’t leave. And then, boom, it’s gone. Until the next time.
And because this process is bit by bit, and because, at least for me, most of my default beliefs have been named, questioned and fallen away, what’s left are the earliest memories of who I took myself to be, based on what I saw and felt around me. And it’s not comfortable. It’s not easy. It’s a practice that requires almost infinite kindness because when these old beliefs arise they seem like Bedrock Truth. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s who I am. The minute I start being aware of a belief like “I am not enough” all the forces that want to keep that belief in place start fighting like crazy.
The mind says: You will die if you let go of that. That belief kept you alive. Kept you moving, wanting, doing. It’s not so bad. If you let go of that, you’ll have nothing. At least this way, you get to have something: the belief that you are not good enough. Fake gold might not be real gold but at least it’s something to hold on to.
And the body responds to these thoughts with feelings of anxiety, fear, distraction.
Enter kindness. Enter forgiveness. A picture of myself at two or three years old. A recognition that these beliefs were protection. That I/she took them on like winter coats, to be warm. Sometimes I will mouth these words: I see that you didn’t know what else to do. And I’m sorry that you took on what ended up to be so painful. Is still painful. Then: forgiveness for wrapping myself in fake warmth. And recognition of what is here now.
Part 73: When I was four years old, my aunt June took me to see my 96 year old great grandmother at the facility. On the way to her bed, we passed a woman with lily-white hair and a stomach so big that it looked like it could reach the moon. I asked my aunt what was wrong with her. She has to pee, June said. Very badly. (Truth was that she probably had fluid-build-up from chemotherapy).
Now, it is my belly that is big. My belly that is round. My belly that looks as if it could touch the moon. And the image of that lily-haired woman, dead now for more than sixty years, is still alive in my mind. It haunts me as my future.
Ever since I first started dieting when I was eleven, I’ve been conscious of my belly. I touched it over and over when I first woke up in the morning, before I ate, after I ate, two hours after eating, before I went to sleep. Was it flat? Did I lose weight? Am I thin enough to be allowed to be here? It became a habit by sheer repetition. Open eyes. Lift covers. Put hands on belly. Make sure it is flat. (If not flat, figure out what you did wrong and what you can eat or do today so that hands touch flat belly tomorrow).
The post-cancer medication, according to the doctor is “messing with your digestion, causing bloating."
Yep. That might be it. Or maybe it’s something else. But moon-belly and bloating are part of everyday now.
Sometimes I fall into belly-dismay. I want my flatter belly back. And at those times, I feel as if I’m back into wholesale body-rejection. Believing that if I had a flatter belly, I’d be happy. Happier. And even as I write those words, I know they aren’t true. A flat belly never made me happy. Weighing 82 pounds didn’t make me happy. Weighing 160 pounds didn’t make me unhappy. (Yes, my thighs rubbed together, and I had to buy new jeans, but that wasn’t the same as happy/unhappy).
What makes me unhappy, what always makes me unhappy, are my thoughts (about my belly or my thighs or what I just said or did or didn’t say or didn’t do).This is the hardest thing, the very hardest thing to believe: It is not the situation. It is my thoughts about the situation. The story I tell myself. The way, when I touch my belly, I automatically recall the white-haired woman and I project myself into the future and a time when I am lying on a bed in a facility with a moon belly and a four year old walks by and stares. Awful, my mind says. Repulsive, my mind says. And then the emotions based on the awful-ugly story get drummed up (sadness, despair, loneliness) and before long, I believe I hate my belly, that I have to do something to change it now. Stop taking the damn medication. So what, the mind says, if there is a cancer recurrence. What’s more important: a flat belly or risking cancer? And in my then-state of mind, the answer comes back: Flat belly.
Insane. It’s insane. And yet there’s nothing like the body to trigger the cascade of shame and judgment.
If I don’t want to die with the words, “She had a flat belly” on my gravestone, the time to accept, question, and show some kindness to my moon-belly and my thoughts about it is now.
Part 72: Matt came home from the Farmers Market with the first lilacs of the year. Little packets of moon-kissed fragrance. Clouds of lavender petals. It’s spring here in northern California and I’ve been watching my mind resort to its familiar ways:
Spring means summer is near. Summer means fire season is near.
We haven’t had half of the rain we often have.
The fire season will be long, awful, devastating.
The air will fill with smoke, hurt the lungs.
We will need to pack our bags again. Get ready to evacuate.
I’d better start thinking of where we will move if our house burns down.
Oh, my mind. It brings up the past, paints it with horror, projects the future and paints that with horror too.
Here is what I know:
Those thoughts are not personal.
They are the way this mind works.
As a kid, I lived waiting for the other shoe to drop. And then it did. And then I waited for the next shoe to drop. And that dropped too. That is how and where my nervous system developed.
But here’s what I can do and do do: watch the display of thoughts like I would sit in a movie theater watching House on Haunted Hill. I hear the war drums, feel their pull, nod in recognition (say, hello, there you are, right on time, thank you for reminding me that this is earth school) and without trying to change them or judge myself for having them, I turn to the lilacs so that I don’t miss what is here now.
What was there then is not what is here now.
This is always the turning point: recognizing that I am caught in a nightmare and that although it might be a rough fire season, and although we will prepare for that, it is spring now. The air itself is new, fresh, lush. On the hillside there is a fusillade of wild iris, waves of violet and pale yellow. And the poppies! Meteor showers of saffron light. That is all that is happening now. Only that. Can I be here for this display or will I miss it preparing for the catastrophe that might not come while I protect myself from losses that already happened?
Part 71: Awhile back I was between books and wanted to do something creative so on the recommendation of a friend, I took a year-long class with a woman named Cassandra Light about making a doll. I knew nothing about working with clay. And when I heard we had to sew the costumes for our dolls, I almost quit. The last time I sewed anything was in eighth grade home economics when I sewed the pockets of my apron backwards and upside down.
In our doll class, we started with a lump of clay for one foot. I liked the feeling of the cool, wet clay beneath my fingers when I didn’t think too much about making something that resembled a foot. And after six months, there it was: a foot that resembled an actual foot. Amazing. From there, the other foot, the two hands, the face. I started wondering who was emerging and I realized her name was Rosebud and she was like the springtime. Full of possibilities. Not yet in full bloom. Then came shopping for fabric for her dress, looking at wigs for her hair and slowly, slowly, I realized I could do this. I could sew (not well). That anything I could imagine and focus my attention on, I could do.
Rosebud now occupies a corner of our living room and as I was walking by her today, I remembered the exhilaration of doing something I didn’t think I could do. Of going beyond my so-called limitations and letting myself imagine big. Bigger. Of realizing that everything begins with a thought, a dream, and that it’s possible to dream big. Bigger. Even now, with three quarters of my life almost gone, anything is possible. Do I keep replaying the past and stick that like Post-it’s onto the future? I grew up hearing that I wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t creative enough, wasn’t thin enough, wasn’t healthy enough, couldn’t write a book, shouldn’t even try. That conditioning, those voices are still there. They are like the bedrock that formed my image of myself and they come up many times, but especially when I start a new project. No, I think. I can’t do that. And they come up when I think of my health, a possible cancer remission, getting old, older. And then I look at Rosebud. And I say to those voices, “Thank you. I hear you. I no longer need your protection.” And then, well then, I start dreaming into the glory of what is not yet in full bloom.
Part 70: When we first went into shutdown mode, I was quietly relieved. Relieved to stop running around. Relieved to stop driving in traffic. Relieved to stop going to events I felt obligated to attend. Relieved to stop feeling pulled to travel when I don’t like traveling. “Finally,” I thought. “Permission to be quiet.” Of course, there is much to say about not granting myself permission before the pandemic, but it took the pandemic for me to realize even that. If those earliest days had a voice (before the losses, before the deaths, before the fears and anxieties), it would have said, “Here’s your chance to contemplate how you have been living your life. What you have been spending your energy on. If it matches your nervous system now, not the you of ten, twenty years ago. Allow this time to be your reset.”
All through this year, I’ve been framing the pandemic (when it is not about sickness, loss, death) as a portal to noticing old fears, outmoded ways of working, reassessing relationships and questioning routines that became automatic. A chance to look deeply, be still, unwind.
Other habits, despite my ideas, never took root: Painting. Learning Spanish. Planting tomatoes and basil in seeds. Learning to twerk. Writing a book. Finishing writing that book. Meditating three times a day. Being productive in the way I once defined productive. Reading War and Peace.
There has also been ambient fear. Personal fear. Cultural fear. Did they guy who fixed our garbage compactor this morning just cough and spread aerosols through his mask? Do vaccinations really protect the transmission of the virus? When my friend invites me for dinner, does sitting six feet away from her really protect us—what about that sneeze she just sneezed-- or is that going to change next week? Will an incredibly virulent mutation make these vaccines obsolete? After surviving three car wrecks, losing all my money and surviving cancer, will I die from Covid because that new mutation takes up residence in my lungs?
Fear lays in wait, ready to latch onto anything, everything. Matt walks out the door and fear says, “Say goodbye. You might never see him again. You haven’t been as kind as you could be.” I feel a pain in my left breast and fear says, “That could be the beginning of cancer again.” A friend tells me the pain in her chest and ribs has increased and I think, “Could it be lung cancer?” Fear contracts. Fear shuts down. Fear says no to risks.
Almost everything I have ever done that has utterly changed my life—going to India by myself when I was twenty-five, starting to write when everyone told me I couldn’t, stopping dieting when friends thought I was crazy, showing up at my first group with rollers in my hair (long story. For another time), speaking in front of large groups, introducing myself to Matt three times after he ignored me the first two, wrangling my way into my first editor’s office, swimming in a cold pool night after night—has been with fear whispering in one ear and a wild love for something I couldn’t name in the other. Call it wanting to live before I die. Call it willingness to dive without knowing where I will land. Call it wanting to bow to the light more than I want to stay safe in my dark cell.
There is something before fear that I usually fly right past: uncertainty. The fact that I don’t know what will happen next, that anything can happen at any time. And that is enough to slay me. I hate that. Really. And I love that. Really. Because when I let the hugeness of that in—I don’t know what will happen or how long any of us will live—and I don’t use uncertainty as a reason to be frightened and clamp down and hold tight—the uncertainty turns into wonder. Wonder at the birdsong I am listening to as I write these words. Wonder that I am being breathed. That I have hands and a brain to instruct them to press the keys I am now pressing. Wonder at death and dying and what dies and what doesn’t die. I don’t know if this is true or not, but at the moment, it seems that with uncertainty comes letting go of having to know the big plan and with letting go of having to know comes wonder and with wonder comes openness and with openness comes the awareness of beauty and with the awareness of beauty comes recognizing fear when it floats like a feather across the meadow of my mind. Gone now before I finish this sentence.
Part 69: One of the hardest things I’ve had to accept is that when I chose one thing, I didn’t choose another. When I chose to get a mammogram, I didn’t choose the thermogram route.
When I chose Matt, I didn’t choose Rob-the-meditator.
When I chose to write (and keep writing) about compulsive eating, I didn’t choose to write a novel.
When I chose to live in California, I didn’t choose to live in New York, close to my family.
When I chose to not have children, I didn’t choose the joy or worry of children and grandchildren.
The reasons decisions have often been difficult for me is that I want to keep all my options open. I’m not married to Rob. That train left the station 36 years ago. I’m not living near my family. That boat sailed 43 years ago. I’m not a novelist. I am a non-fiction writer.
Wanting or believing I can keep all the options open has led to a great deal of self-torture: “Well,” I've mused, “I can still move to France and live in Paris for a year. I can still move to the East Coast and be around family. I can still spend the next five years working on a novel.”
Yes I can, but no I won’t. Why? Because I don’t want to. Because those things didn’t pull me. They were not my path, my fate.
Which brings me to the second part of choices I’ve made: being clear about what is mine to do and what isn’t. Everyone has a unique path. Mine is to write and to teach what I know. My friend Rebecca, who has never had a job, is best suited to be a mother and a grandmother. How do I know that? Because that is what she is doing. Because she has no desire to do anything else.
Listening to and trusting what pulled me was the first step.
Doing what pulled me was the second step.
Accepting what pulled me was the third step.
And being vigilant about stopping the self-torture that tried to convince me that I could have been pulled by something else and that all other choices were still open is the fourth step.
Part 68: It’s Passover this week. Eight days when we do ritual Seders, eat (gluten-free) matzoh and celebrate the release of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt. To me, who hasn’t ever been religious but who loves ritual, the holiday is about freedom from the narrow places of our lives (our “Chometz”). The ways we feel imprisoned. The ways we enslave ourselves—and renewing our commitment to be free. (Just for the record: Here are the ways I keep myself confined to those narrow places: When I don’t recognize old beliefs of not having worth as just that: old beliefs, I slide into a familiar hole; When I act as if getting there is more important than being here; When I blame someone else for the same things I have done thousands of times; When I feel sorry for myself). It’s so helpful to name these patterns otherwise they continue on their unconscious way, as if they are Truth.
Another thing I like about Passover is matzoh slathered with butter and apples and walnuts and the songs we sing, particularly the ones about the difference between more and enough (Dayenu).
We use the Santa Cruz Haggadah (prayer book) because it has cartoons, regards tofu as a holy food and isn’t boring. A different experience than those four-hour long Seders I used to go to as a kid.
Here’s my prayer: May all be free from the narrow places in our lives. And eat apples, walnuts and cinnamon while doing so. Except those allergic to nuts.
Part 67: Angels have never spoken to me. Dead people don’t whisper in my ear. Saints or prophets are silent around me. Which is why I was convinced for the longest time that God, whoever He or She was or is, forgot about me.
But recently I’ve realized I’ve always heard voices.
They say things like: It’s time to get up now. Brush your teeth. Eat. Get out to your studio. Write. Stop listening to the news. Say “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Take a nap. Turn off "This is Us" and go to sleep. Now. Walk. Look up, not down. Say thank you, thank you, thank you.
Whenever I used to hear the word guidance, I’d feel like I didn’t have any. But I do. You do. Every one does. The problem of course is that it speaks to us and we don’t listen—and then “I’m confused. I don’t know what to do. Or eat.”
I used to eat a chunk of chocolate every day. I love chocolate. And then I realized that after I ate it, my head felt fuzzy, spacey. My body was telling me something I didn’t want to hear. I could have said, “I’m confused about whether to eat chocolate or not.” But I wasn’t confused, and eventually—it took longer than I like to admit—I stopped eating my beloved chocolate, even the ones made without sugar.
Most of us have a misguided allegiance to confusion and turning against ourselves. To ignoring what people call guidance. But if you listen, it’s always speaking. In the flutter in your belly. In the joy in your chest when you speak to a friend, look at a tree.
Listen. Let it in.
Part 66: When I first started writing, I modeled almost everything I wrote and did on my then-writing teacher, Ellen Bass. She created an anthology of women poets (No More Masks). I created an anthology of women who were challenged by their relationship with food (Feeding the Hungry Heart). She led weekly writing groups. I started weekly groups for compulsive eaters. She wrote poetry. I wrote poetry.
Of the stack of poems I wrote, the only one I remember was called: My Man was Like an Old Volvo about the process of what I then saw as training rough-around-the-edges, don’t-know-how-to-talk-or-even-locate-their feelings men and then, for some reason (mine or his), letting them go “finely tuned, for another hand.” Nothing like likening a person to an old jalopy ...
A few weeks ago, I asked my friend James if he knew how to contact our friend Jenny to whom I’d given the stack of poems. (I haven’t written poetry in thirty years and I’m pretty sure that my poems were just a teeny step up from Roses Are Red, Violets are Blue, but I was still interested in seeing them).
James contacted a friend who knew Jenny, which led to me finding out that she had moved so many times that my poems had gotten lost in the process. Of course they had. Time to let go of that old jalopy-poem.
Last week James called and told me that he was very disappointed that I hadn’t thanked him for connecting me with Jenny. I remembered wanting the same thank you in similar situations, and I apologized. But it got me thinking about giving and receiving.
Do I give to get back or do I give because the giving itself gladdens my heart?
Is a gift only a gift if it is received the way I want it to be received? Is it really a gift if I need to be thanked, recognized, applauded for my generosity so that I can feel like a good person for giving? What if I give anonymously? What if no one knows who it comes from? Does it take away from the act of giving?
In my family, giving wasn't free: if you get straight A’s, you can have this love-knot ring. If you do what you don’t want to do, I’ll buy you that green skirt. If you don’t talk back, I’ll keep loving you. Love, and giving as an expression of that love, were conditional. I had to be nice. I had to be good. I had to say please and thank you, but especially, thank you. And I had to let the giver be bigger than me because they had something I didn’t have and believed I needed. They had the power.
Here is what I actually believe when I pay attention to giving: the gift I get back is the giving itself. My chest fills up with—there is no other way to describe it—with a kind of golden/pink/sunrise-colored love. My personality—i.e., my fear-based identity—disappears. There is sanity, wholeness and kiss-the-ground gratefulness. Until my conditioning pops back in and says, “For goodness sake, the least they could do is thank me. Look at all the effort I made. Look at what I’ve done. What I’ve given. What an ingrate. I’m never going to do that again ...”
Since it’s earth school, I figure that these kinds of beliefs/stories/feelings are going to come up over and over until they can’t even get a foot in the door. Until there is not one part of me that believes them. Until then, people like James help me because they show me where I am caught and they remind me that giving begets love and love begets more love. It is love after all that is the power.
Part 65: A few years ago I was walking by a store in San Rafael and saw coasters of hearts with wings in the window. I’ve always been crazy about heart-anything. When I rented my first apartment in Santa Cruz, my friend Lennie helped me decorate my bathroom wall in dozens of heart-shaped boxes. (It was Valentine's Day and stores were replete with heart boxes. I can’t remember now what I did with all the chocolate inside those boxes. I had just started weekly groups called Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating, so one would hope that I didn’t compulsively eat all the chocolate from those boxes).
I remember buying two heart-shaped coasters in the San Rafael store. I remember giving one of them to my friend Menno who reminded me of hearts and wings. He loved it. He put it on his altar when I was diagnosed with cancer. Told me he prayed for me every day.
But despite that, every time I use the heart-coaster, I think, “I want another one. What if this gets lost, broken, ruined? I wonder what the name of that store was. I wonder if it’s still open. I wonder if I can call them, ask them to send me a few more." (It’s a mystery how I would lose a coaster in a pandemic when neither Matt nor I leave the house and I put the coaster back in the coaster-drawer every day but anyway).
TMore. More. More.
I used to do that with food. I’d put some on my plate, take a bite and before I even finished chewing it, I’d go back for more. What if Matt gobbles it up before I can get more? What if it’s all gone and I wanted more? Do I take more just in case? I have a name for that: it’s called “Storing for the Hunger to Come.”
Yesterday as I was cleaning the other side of the cabinet with the coaster drawer, I found pink wrapping paper, unfolded it and found two more never-used heart-coasters. Either I bought four of them that day in San Rafael or they appeared like a gift from Love itself. If I was Caroline Myss, I’d consider that perhaps they just appeared. But since I’m me and I don’t have that kind of wonder, I’m left with amazement. And with many questions about more and the old belief that there’s not enough to go around.
What exactly did I believe would have happened if the coaster broke or got lost and I didn’t have another one?
Or if the food I wanted got eaten before I go back?
What don’t I want to feel when I keep wanting more of what I already have? Is it emptiness or, in a radical turn, is it realizing the sheer abundance of what is already here?
Here’s what I know now: in wanting another coaster, another piece of cake, another soft sweater, I disregard the one I already have. I don’t allow myself to really have it, appreciate it. I revert to being a child who believed she didn’t have enough love and made a decision that she needed to take whatever she could wherever she could get it. And I forget to look, to see, to let myself have the contentment that is always already here.
Part 64: I am still glumping around. Less tired than the past few days, but still on the low side. Not much of a pulse here.
So today, in addition to allowing the glump to be there and to nap a lot, I decided to take a few seconds a few times during the day to notice name and breathe in what brings me joy. Because the second I do, there is a cellular lift, a recognition that oh yeah, there is glump and there is joy. There is tiredness and there is a lamp with silly little bird-like confections sitting on its wires. They are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible to be tired and feel the gate swing open in my heart when joy walks in.
Here’s my list for today:
looking at the bird lamp
listening to the rain
hearing Matt laugh
drinking a matcha chai latte
eating almond butter sprinkled with cacao
looking at the color orange
walking in the pool in the rain
writing this to you
As I write the list, I am also aware that nothing I look at, hear or eat takes the place of the big quiet joy of remembering that I am not my stories.
That I am what notices my stories.
And that every time I am wrapped in a familiar story of myself (usually negative) and remember to question it, there is a felt-sense of being let out of prison. I go from being hunkered down in an old familiar self to being free. Which is the biggest joy of all.
Part 63: I’m tired today. I could come up with reasons I am tired and I could also come up with some scary stories: I participated in an immersive writing class last week that was full-on. A few hours later, Anne Lamott and I had our pretty fabulous engaging conversation (which lives on the videos section of my Facebook page). Or maybe I am tired because somehow, somewhere, I got COVID. Uh-oh. Or because it’s daylight savings time and I haven’t yet gotten into the new rhythm. On the other hand, maybe I am tired because having had cancer and its many treatments including the drug I am taking every day which my body does not seem to like much has finally caught up with me. Story after story. Reason after reason.
But what happens if I’m just tired and don’t try to find a reason? What happens (I ask myself) if I’m tired, have nothing brilliant or original to say, and still want to write a Cancer Chronicle?
The problem, if there is one, comes when I think I need to be a certain way and I’m not. When I think I need to have a big thoughts and I don’t have them.
The bigger story is that unless I am achieving, accomplishing, creating, I have no value.
(Fill in the blank for your story about when and if and what it takes for you to have value or worth. Everyone’s got one).
And the subtext here is radical rest. I’ve written about slowing down. I’ve written about taking in the good. I’ve written about reversals. And maybe, I can’t remember, I’ve even written about radical resting but if I have, I haven’t listened to myself because doing nothing, achieving nothing even for two days (one day is fine. Two days is pushing it except if I am on a previously agreed-upon vacation) pushes on old beliefs, identities, stories about what it takes to survive.
Now, though, I don’t even want to inquire into those beliefs or identities. I want to rest, which I am going to do as soon as I type this last period.
Part 62: When I returned from my last radiation treatment, one of my closest friends ended our twenty-year relationship. She didn’t say why or what had prompted this seemingly sudden break. Instead, she went silent. After a month, and in answer to an email, she told me that I was too focused on myself.
I was baffled, angry, furious. I wanted to say: Excuse me, I have CANCER. I wanted to say, I hate you. I wanted to say, It’s been a challenging six months, give me a break.
Instead, I too went silent. I cried. I grieved. I did a ritual about ending our relationship. Composed various letters to her that I never sent. Wanted to forget I ever knew her. That took three months.
Then I started to ask myself about our relationship. Aside from the cancer, was I really too focused on myself? I wanted to find out what was true about not only my relationship with her but about me and friends. About the friendships with women I’d “lost” or ended.
Here’s what I discovered: I was still carrying a childhood secret/belief with me: that I was damaged at the core. That, like a lottery ticket, when you scratched away the brightness, the truth would be revealed—and that I needed to both hide that and also find friends who were wiser, kinder, more evolved so that when or if I fell apart, they could salvage the wreckage of me.
Underneath this was the belief that there was no redemption, no hope, and that it and I were always going to come down to this. Wreckage. Chaos. Despair. And of course, fear. The fear of collapse. Of going crazy. Of needing to avoid touching or feeling that wreckage and craziness at all costs.
When, after my friend ended our relationship, I scratched away at the top ten layers of not only our friendship but of many friendships that ended, I saw the dynamic: In refusing to even name the wreckage, I also refused to own wisdom, power, brilliance. They had it. I didn’t.
Seeing this and questioning what I had been doing, feeling, giving away for decades (not always, not in most friendships), I knew why my friend ended our relationship. I didn’t agree with how she did it. I didn’t agree I had not been a good friend. I knew I’d been a great friend. But I also knew that there were times I was under the hypnotic trance that I was damaged and gave her the power to salvage that wreckage. And that’s too great a power to give any human being. It was not her job to do that; it’s mine.
In the end, pieces of me I hadn’t recognized since I was five years old came flying back into wholeness, which was an almost-ecstatic process. It still is. PS: This is a photo of a friend from college. We are still friends.
Part 61: When I was growing up, both shopping and eating were equal parts thrilling and shaming. I looked forward to them the way a lover anticipates a forbidden and clandestine meeting: heart pounding with the soon-to-be dive into a world of adrenaline and sensory delights. My entire life has come down to this, only this. This bowl of ice cream, this striped sweater.
After my mother and I would shop at My Darling Daughter, we’d sneak the orange heather sweaters and skirts into the house and hide them under the bed so that my father wouldn’t see, wouldn’t know how much we’d bought (until he got the credit card bill). We knew we’d “been bad” but we liked it. Sneaking and hiding and lying was fun.
After I snuck into the kitchen and hid frozen Milky Ways in my pajamas, I’d eat them quickly bent over the garbage pail in my room in case I heard someone coming and could spit them out quickly. I’d sneak and hide and lie about eating candy and ice cream and Ring Dings—and then I’d cry from the shame.
I grew up having learned two main things about joy and pleasure: the first was that they weren’t free and that I needed to pay for getting what I wanted with guilt and shame. That I needed to hide my appetites.
But the act of hiding and lying and sneaking also taught me that pleasure was out there, by acquiring, by eating, by getting more, then more. That by myself, in myself, I wasn’t enough. I needed the donut, the sweater, the thing I was not allowed to have without guilt to be whole or happy.
Now that I am neither shopping or bingeing (the photograph is when I was, when I did), I notice that without the lover’s anticipation of meeting her beloved donut or new sweater, without the double-edged thrill and shame of eating and buying, life is humdrum. Depressing. Dead. Flat. And then I realize I’ve popped back into the past and that those feelings are the ones I had as a ten year old. And as soon as I name those feelings, I can notice them without being them. Tenderness arises for that lonely, chubby, crooked-bangs child, and I pop back into the present where there is the whirr of hummingbird wings and a breeze on my face and the warmth of sun on my skin. Where life is good.
Part 60: Today marks the one-year anniversary of my last radiation treatment and I wanted to pay homage to my beloved everyday companion.
When they first told me I needed to have a zip-up top after the surgery, I balked. I wrinkled my nose. “But I have a closet full of turtlenecks,” I said, “just like Diane Keaton.” They were unmoved. Unwavering. Told me I would not be able to raise my left arm for weeks, at least not enough for my go-to-turtlenecks.
But then, hanging on a rack at REI, I saw you.
You weren’t fancy. You weren’t cotton. You weren’t cashmere. You weren’t even wool. And that logo over the left breast. So tacky. But you were the only zip-up that fit me and so, reluctantly, I shoved you into a shopping bag under two flashlights and brought you home.
My teacher in India said that clothes cry when you to don’t choose them. Maybe not. But maybe. After all, even rocks that look solid and unmovable are made of thousands of whizzing atoms and even if scientists don’t agree, I am certain that they too, like plants, respond to love. So, today, instead of doing my usual with you -- taking you for granted, zipping you quickly, wiping off the drips of almond butter from breakfast -- I gazed at you for long minutes. I took you in.
Your teal-green glow. Your forest-floor thickness. Your gliding zipper that, a year later, has never, not once, come unhinged.
Thank you for waiting patiently at the end of my bed for my middle of the night forays and for being the first thing, the only thing, I want to wear when the sky is dark and inky and the morning is bright and blooming.
You, my fleecy friend, have been steadfast and loyal, the keeper of my keys, the holder of my hand-warmers, the pocket for my gum picks, my glasses, my phone -- and all this without a swoon, a stain, a snag, a snub.
Gone is my cashmere croon. Gone is my torch for turtlenecks. Gone is my desire to be polyamorous with other zip-up’s. In your quiet unobtrusive way, you replaced them all.
Part 59: When my father was diagnosed with stomach and adrenal cancer, the lights went out in his eyes, face, body. He stopped talking except in one-syllable words. It seemed as if no one was home. If I had to guess, I’d say that he saw a quick exit from this life and took it, even as he still breathed. I sprang to his rescue, filled in the silence, cooed over his body, took him to chemotherapy, flew to New York every ten days for three months. When he died, I was by his side, playing Frank Sinatra, telling him I loved him. At no point before his death, did he say I love you, I’m dying, thank you or goodbye.
When I grieved for him, I grieved for the father I thought I had, not the father I actually had.
My lifetime illusion about him was that he adored me. That he would never lie to me. That he would stand in front of a moving train for me. As a child, I believed that without his love, I would die.
After his death, my brother and I discovered he’d been lying to us, that he’d been attempting to pit us against each other, and that he’d left millions of dollars to a woman he claimed not to love who, when she died, left that money to a brother she hadn’t spoken to in twenty years.
Last month I decided to write him a letter beginning with “Dear Dad…”
I felt as if he was in the room with me and I could say what I never said—what I would never allow myself to feel--when he was alive because I was too busy taking care of him, being the favored daughter. His “pussycat.” And I was shocked at what came out: pages of anger, betrayal, disappointment that I’d been carrying around for decades. And because I haven’t looked, haven’t wanted to see, haven’t named the beliefs, I haven’t been able to question if they are true—and discover who I am on the other side.
Was I the victim of my father’s lies or in a wild reversal, was he the victim of my refusal to see him as he actually was? Did I color him, a broken man, with boundless love that wasn’t his but mine—my love, my heart--so that I could survive what I perceived as the heartbreak of my childhood?
Here is what I know: when I walk around with my heart banged shut to one person (as it’s been to my father), it affects everything I see, touch, feel. A closed heart is a closed heart until I question what closed it. When I am willing to go where I never wanted to go, see what I never wanted to see, feel what I thought would destroy me—there, only there, is what can never be destroyed. There is always light inside the dark.
Part 58: When my breast was diagnosed with cancer, my acupuncturist told me a story: There once was a man who was destined to have an unhappy marriage. The elders in his village decided that it was possible to both honor and yet circumvent destiny by marrying him to a tree.
“Let this cancer be your marriage to a tree,” my acupuncturist said. I understood—at least sort of--that I had a choice: I could marry doom in the form of the cancer or I could radically and immediately reorient myself toward what most people define as bad luck, terrifying, horrible. I could understand the diagnosis from the this-is-awful-point-of-view or I could seize it as a chance to open the aperture, see a wider vista.
I grew up waiting for the other shoe to drop (because it did, over and over) so to greet the so-called catastrophe of cancer as an invitation to marry a tree was reaching way out of my comfort zone. Way out. Fear was comfortable. Disaster was comfortable. Awful, but comfortable because it was familiar. But because I was terrified and shocked and humbled by the diagnosis, I was willing to do anything. Consider anything. (That’s the great gift of unexpected illnesses, accidents, losses and compulsive eating; the chance to let the pick-up sticks fall and create a different arrangement.)
What did it take to do this? What is it still taking? Vigilance. Steadfastness. Catching myself each time I droned on to myself, Matt, friends, God about woulda-coulda-shoulda and can-you-believe-I-have-to-go-through-this? This never shouldn’t have happened to me, not special little big me.
To see cancer as marriage to a tree meant that I saw it as a chance to let it all break and to revision, reorient, rethink what being alive meant to me. It also meant that I let myself moan when I needed to moan.
I’m still asking the questions. I’m still listening to the answers. I hope I’m never done…
Part 57: I decided to make a list of what fear tells me so that I could welcome it in all its guises—because it’s already here so why not.
I’m afraid of getting cancer again. I’m afraid of dying from Covid. I’m afraid of getting Long Covid and all that means including food tasting like gasoline. I’m afraid that Matt will die before me. I’m afraid that I will die before Matt and he’ll marry a twenty-year old whippersnapper with long legs and big hair in which case I will come back and cut off his penis. I’m afraid that thoughts like these prove I am not a nice person. I’m afraid I will never write another book. I’m afraid I will write another book and it will be terrible. I’m afraid I will die before I’ve lived. I’m afraid that my last words will be “Now can I have Hostess Snoballs?"
Part 56: The first few people I told about the cancer said, “ Shit” and “Oh shit.” Most of them said, “I am sorry.”
My guess is that most people are baffled about responding to news of a friend’s cancer; they botch their words, waver between the sudden awareness that they too will die someday and the guilty relief that at least for now it’s not their turn. Often they say they’re sorry (which doesn’t help because it assumes that I am someone to whom this shouldn’t have happened but as it already did, I’m not sure how to respond), and when they do, I’m reminded of what Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, said after her cancer returned: “Don’t be sorry. I kind of like it. I have been the most impossible person my whole life, and now I no longer have to make excuses. Now I’m just like, ‘I have cancer.’ And people are like, ‘By all means, ruin our lives. Wreck the house.’”
I secretly liked the idea of cancer-as-wrecking ball and decided that the wrecking-ball phase of cancer likely followed Kubler-Ross’ stages of shock, denial and anger but preceded grief and acceptance. Although I vacillated between shock and numbness that first week, I noticed a glint of glee in the back of my chest like a tightly folded origami swan waiting for unbridled permission to be what I’ve always been: intense and wild with an undying love of meaning, metaphors and motorcycle boots.
Part 55: I remember the years that I believed that once I “handled” my relationship with food, I’d be done. I wouldn’t have to think about it again.
And I remember the years that I believed that once I had a glimpse of what many teachers call my “true nature,” I’d be forever awakened. I also remember that I believed that once the cancer was removed from my breast, I’d be saved. Healthy. Done.
Here’s what I know now: Food will always be a doorway for me. It’s like having an immediate signal to pay attention. When I am sad or confused or tired—feeling any number of feelings from being in earth school—food will often pop into my mind, seem like a good idea. And most people would say, “So what. You just ate a spoonful of almond butter. That’s not exactly a binge.” True. Not a binge but not the truth either. Not turning toward myself, inviting the sadness or confusion or tiredness. How will I be my own best love if I keep turning away from what wants to be loved? Wanting to eat when I am feeling sadness is the exact definition of turning away, of abandoning myself. It’s not about the food. It’s about where love is. Where kindness is.
There is no “one and done.” With eating, waking up, cancer. That’s a myth that keeps people hooked on feeling bad about themselves. I’ve fallen for it for years and every time, but only 100% of the time (as Byron Katie says), I lose myself in the promise that if only I could fix what the mind tells me is wrong, I’d be fixed. We’re not done until we stop breathing (and who knows what happens then?) What else are we going to do but learn how to be kind to ourselves and how to welcome what we would rather reject. That welcoming is what is called practice. And for practice, effort has to be made. Every day. Seriously? Every day? Yes. What better way to spend your time than walking out of prison...
A or B: Fall for the myth. Believe you need to be done now. Take the quickest route offered. OR
Notice when you are caught. (Wanting to eat when you’re not hungry or feeling shame or like you’re never going to get “it” are all waving flags). Time to turn toward what wants love. Don’t leave yourself when you are most needed.
Part 54: Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t add anything that wasn’t there already (except of course the fact that there is the addition of cancer in a part of my body I didn’t know had cancer). Events, illnesses, losses reveal and then exacerbate what we already believe, what was already there. What we have been paying attention to. What matters most to us. The same is true for another illness, an accident, a death, a loss, anything that disrupts the usual way of doing and believing.
What’s here now is what will be there then.
When my left breast was diagnosed with cancer, I was shocked, then humbled, then frightened—and then came the process—or practice—of being with the oncoming torrent of reactions. And how I did that, how I named them, felt them, allowed them, questioned them is where the proverbial rubber hit the road. Each time I got scared, told myself frightening stories—you’re going to die, you didn’t eat right, you should have known this was going to happen—I brought myself back to a foot, a breath, a hand, a step, a scent and I came back to my body. The trance of “what if” and “how could you?” kept occurring and each time, I noticed it, allowed it, honored it and changed my focus. I kept getting lost and then I kept bringing myself back. The same thing happened when we lost our money in 2008. With one phone call, I learned that thirty years of our combined life savings was gone. Shock. Terror. Shame. Humiliation. Questions like: where will we live? How we will pay our mortgage? Can we make it even this month? And after two trusted friends said, “Nothing of any value has been lost,” (and after I got furious with both of them), I realized that I had a choice about where I focused my attention: it could be on what I had lost and the cascade of frightening stories about the future as well as how dumb Matt and I were about investing OR I could focus my attention on what I still had. What I could find. What was not lost. How I responded to the loss was only and all about attention. And although it was quite difficult to keep catching myself when I wandered into terror and shame, I made a choice to keep bringing my attention to the tea cup, the cloud, the bite of chocolate, the touch of a friend’s hand. And that changed everything. Years of meditation didn’t teach me what losing our money did. What cancer continues to show me. And it strengthens what I call a “holy vigilance” to not wander in the hell realms of my mind. Why should I live in hell when I can kiss the ground I walk on instead?
Part 53: I’m still walking in water at night and doing post-breast cancer exercises. The water is still very cold. Maybe 40 degrees. Matt, my beloved partner stands on the edge of the pool belting out show tunes (he takes requests. My favorite so far has been “If I Were King of the Forest" from the Wizard of Oz) while I flutter my arms, look at the stars and do a bit of screaming from the cold. Friends ask me why. Why am I doing this in the rain, in the cold, in the middle of winter? And the answer is two-fold.
The first is because until I touch the water, I am my familiar self. I am tired and dusty from the day. And then suddenly, I flap my wings like a bird and the world is different, alive, unknowable. I am in the water in the rain in the dark beyond what I would normally call my life. I am not-me anymore. I am new.
And the second reason is because it’s a practice of doing what is uncomfortable. All day, I am privileged to be warm and well-fed and utterly comfortable—and what I know about change is that it happens on the cusp of discomfort. It happens when I take risks. Risk-taking is uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels like I can’t take the risk. I can’t do this. It feels—I know this sounds melodramatic, but it’s true—like I will die if I step out, if I take the risk, if I get into the water, if I let go of a belief.
Eating sitting down and when I’d had enough used to be risky because they went beyond my comfort level, but now, they are habits. Now what is uncomfortable is on an inner level: being vigilant about stopping the war with myself, a lifelong habit. It is uncomfortable because criticizing myself and then warring with criticizing myself is the way I learned to survive. They made me feel that I was doing the best I could, even if that best meant being a failure. And so I continue to be willing to be uncomfortable because it shakes me loose. It breaks the chains of familiarity. It goes beyond the edge of how I define myself.
When I step into that water, I am not-me anymore. I am a bird who suddenly finds herself splashing her dry, tired wings. Fresh. Alive. New.
Part 52: (I saw this photograph years ago in Toronto; there was no attribution).
A beautiful friend asked me yesterday: do you dare to be content? Just for this moment? (Yes was my answer. Yes. Yes).
And so, I ask you the same question: do you dare to be content, even for a moment? Do you dare to let yourself stop pushing, trying to fix, improving? To notice but not obey the dictum that says “No, not now.” Or the voices that call out to you telling you that you would be disloyal to your family, your heritage, your friends, your suffering as a child. Do you dare to relax into what has been holding you (even through cancer, even through illness, even through loss, even though sadness, even through grief? Because even when it seemed as if nothing was there, you still are here, you made it) every moment of every year of your life?
Part 51: This is not a picture of me, which by now, you already know. This is however a picture of my brother with his beloved wife. I am posting this today not only because my brother is the best brother around but also because his wife (whom I adore) has big fabulous hair and I just hatcheted off chunks of the back of mine with a paper scissor and now it looks like I put a bucket over my head and cut the hair that was sticking out. But it makes me smile to see big hair like his wife has. (You’ll notice of course that my brother, who has gone bald, rocks the look. He tells me I should shave my head too. Yeah, right, I say).
If you don’t want to read about hair-musings during a life-threatening and frightening pandemic, I don’t blame you. Scroll to another page. Skip this post. But if you are willing to surf the hair-waves with me for a few more words, read on.
My mother used to cut my bangs with a nail scissor so that by the time she was finished, they climbed up my forehead in a diagonal line. After that, she gave me Toni home permanents so that I could look like I had natural curly hair like my friend Geri, who had “banana curls” and wore big flashy gift bows in her hair. Then my mother took me to Mary’s salon in Jackson Heights where Mary tried valiantly to make my hair into the kind of hair I didn’t have: a thick, curly, lustrous mane. It didn’t work. When I noticed that my hair curled and flipped with soap in it—it looked really really good—I asked my mother if I could go to school with suds in my hair. She said the bees would get in it and although I was rather enchanted by being a bee whisperer, she said it was out of the question. When, years ago, my new and now favorite hair-cutter gave me a short, choppy cut, I loved it. No more wanting it to be different. What a relief.
As I write this, I’m realizing that trying to have hair that I don’t have is another version of trying to be the kind of person I’m not. It doesn’t work. It never works.
The pandemic has humbled me in so many ways. No longer can I have my favorite hair-cutter cut my hair—he’s sitting the pandemic out-- and the few that have tried outside our house have not done well. Not as badly as I did this morning, but still, they left my hair somewhat crooked and uneven. So I’m left, on the hair-front anyway, with accepting what I’ve got and trying to keep the scissors out of my hands and realizing that my hair does not define me. My hair is not me in the same way that my left breast, with its dents and scars is not me. But, and I know this sounds a bit insane and just plain wrong, especially for those of you who have lost your hair during chemotherapy: it was easier to accept my breast than it is to accept my newly-hatcheted hair.
I’m hoping, I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m working on it, that I will soon be chanting a new hair mantra that is truer than anything I’ve written above: Isn’t it great that I have any hair at all...
Part 50: I’m thinking about cupcakes and friendship and wanting a friend who is no longer a friend to give me cupcakes that I won’t eat because cancer and sugar don’t mix but this friend used to give me cupcakes when we were friends but not close friends because I was never truly myself with her although when I heard this friend was giving cupcakes to other people but not to me it made me feel left out and I don’t like being left out and anyway this cupcake friend has asked for so many things over the years like taking her to the doctor and sitting with her during chemotherapy and visiting her dying mother and I haven’t asked for anything says my mind so a few cupcakes is the least she could do as long as she is making them for other people who haven’t sat with her when she was sick because isn’t it my turn although I no longer eat cupcakes or want to be the cupcake maker’s friend but I still want to be wanted by anyone, everyone, even those I don’t like which prompts me to ask if it’s true that I want to be wanted by this friend and be given cupcakes that I won’t eat and the real answer is no because the kind of love I once received by her never really felt like love although I was so busy wanting to be wanted that I ran right over all the signals that said honey she is not for you she is not a match and so why I ask myself today would I want to be given cupcakes that I wouldn’t eat by a friend who isn’t a friend and one answer might be that I’d rather want than have which may have started this is just a guess with my mother who I wanted to love me in a way that felt like love wanted her to call me sweetheart but the mother I had not the dream mother I thought I wanted could not have done that because of her own loneliness and although I convinced myself for fifty years that I wanted my particular mother to want me it’s not true because even if my mother said oh sweetheart honey darling her words would have been curdled by her unhappiness her bleakness and I wouldn’t have felt cherished which is all I ever wanted from her and for that matter all I want from being given cupcakes I won’t eat by a friend who isn’t a friend and now that I name this insistent desire to want something from someone who cannot possibly give it (it reminds me of all those men I wanted who didn’t want me who lived across the country or thought I was too fat and weren’t attracted to me and how much energy I poured into convincing them I was cherishable) I turn toward myself which is such a radical act to turn towards rather than away which feels like a gnawing in my belly and I’d rather run on broken glass than feel that but after thirty seconds I let myself dip into it and it becomes a feeling of being unloved, empty, and as soon or almost as soon as I feel that there is a soft green rain infusing and surrounding the emptiness and now it doesn’t feel terrible in fact it feels like the unlove which is what the wanting is made of is being met by kindness which is itself a kind of cherishing which is all it or I ever wanted from cupcakes.
Part 49: I’ve been thinking about comparison. I’m thinking that when I wake up in the middle of the night and my mind starts its rattle, it’s almost always because I am, without realizing it, comparing what’s happening now to what happened in the past or what could happen in the future. “I’m not sleeping. I have so much to do tomorrow. I have to get to sleep. What if not sleeping and cancer are related? What if I become demented because of not sleeping. What if I get Parkinson’s because I’m not sleeping?” From there, I can stretch to almost any disaster imaginable, and it all started with being up in the middle of the night—which really, was only being up in the middle of the night. Soft sheets. A comfortable bed. The dark dark dark mystery of night.
But it doesn’t stop there. Let’s take, for instance, my body. It is without a doubt not the same body I had fifty years ago, which was when the photo was taken. I didn’t have age spots, I didn’t have a chunk taken out of my left breast, I didn’t have a sagging neck or lines around my eyes. (Of course, if you had asked me then how I felt about my body, I wouldn’t have answered in glowing terms. I would have told you about my thunder thighs, my moon face, my thin hair. And in doing that, I would have once again been comparing myself to either an idealized version of myself or someone who had thin thighs, a longer face and Jane-Fonda-hair). The other day my friend said, “aging sucks.” And I thought, yeah, it does if you are comparing yourself to a younger version of yourself or to an image of what you could look like if only your chin was firm and your hands didn’t have so many wrinkles and you had the spunk of a thirty year old. Because now, in this body, without comparing myself to what I used to look like and without anticipating the further effects of the years and deciding that more disaster is in store, now, just now, without comparison, I have a face, hands, feet. I can move, feel, speak, touch. What’s the problem with having a sagging chin if I don’t compare it to a chin that doesn’t sag? What’s the problem with a breast that doesn’t look like the other breast if I’m not comparing it to my pre-cancer breast? It happens so quickly, comparison, before we even realize that it’s happening. It’s comparison that creates the suffering, not the chin. Not the breast. Not being up in the middle of the night. It’s the mechanism of remembering and anticipating and skipping right over the simple fact of the present. So, here’s my question: if you woke up tomorrow and your ability to compare yourself to anything or anyone disappeared, how would you feel about yourself?
Part 48: I’ve been thinking about how quickly I walk, act, talk. I’ve been thinking about a woman at our last retreat who said that when she slows down, everything changes. Her eating changes. She tastes her food. She can tell when she’s had enough. Avocados, she said, become sublime, not just sources of good fat. Avocados, she said, become little miracles. But it’s not just food. Slowing down affects everything. One of the many things (not exactly a great word) that cancer shot into my life was that it took away speed. I felt as if I was in a slow-motion movie. What I thought was important the day before the diagnosis lost its allure, its pull, its urgency. And without the belief that I needed to attend to what I thought was important, I could see what was around me. And there was so much beauty to see. There was yes, the need to attend to the cancer, but there was also what I’d been missing in my speedy life. Do this. Do that. Then this. As if they had all equal weight. As if anything was or is more important than stopping, being here, taking in what I see, smell, taste. The little avocado-miracles of a daily life.
Part 47: In the week after the cancer diagnosis, in the week of shock and sadness and fear, I noticed something else as well: a tiny voice that said, "Oh, now you can rest. Now you can stop. Now that you have cancer, you can stay home, stop doing things you didn’t really want to do, take naps." I didn’t tell anyone about this voice. It was surprising, subversive and slightly embarrassing. Had I not given myself rest time before this? Had I been so busy writing books (the photo is of me giving a book reading on tour for my book This Messy Magnificent Life) and then touring with the books after which I kept doing, didn’t stop, did more projects? Had I lived in such a way that the big C—cancer—was, in addition to being life-threatening, also a relief? Well, not exactly a relief but a chance to come to a full stop? I’ve been thinking about this recently as we enter the 11th month of the pandemic and so many of us have had to come to a stop in one or many parts of our lives. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about resting. Real resting. Not a twenty minute nap a day but the permission to stop producing, achieving, acquiring and to stop. To stop participating in the endless cycle of acquiring more of anything. It takes courage to stop, real courage, because we never know if we will start again or what’s in the stillness waiting to be revealed.
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 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.