Monday, October 16, 2006

The Gifts of Cancer

You Darkness

You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
for everyone
so that no one sees you anymore.

But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight-

and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.

I have faith in the night.

Rainer Maria Rilke; Tranlated by David Whyte ( From Fire in the Earth, the "Fire in the Body" Section)

There is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the darkest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny places. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Printed on muted green paper and taped to my kitchen "wailing wall", these words have presided over all that has arisen in my life since the night before my surgery for breast cancer. It was given to me by someone, a remarkable woman, who knows well about the darkness, and how to navigate its valleys. Many years ago, just after their first Christmas as a happy family with their newborn son, her husband became ill and was rushed to a nearby hospital. “If he doesn’t make it through the night, I wont be surprised” the admitting staff informed her, moving him immediately to ICU. From that moment on, everything that was her life began to become undone. They were told he would need a heart transplant but that he was a good candidate. On Valentine’s Day, they received a donor heart. In the wee hours of the following day, they kissed one another before he was wheeled into surgery. The surgery did not go well. Marty never regained consciousness. He died post surgery. Suddenly at 30, Candyce was left alone to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with their infant child.

She became very familiar with the terrain of darkness; over time she could brail its contours and step carefully so as not to slip and fall to her own death. She raged at those who cheaply consoled so as not to bear the pain of their own helplessness. She would not be talked out of the harshness of her experience, its richness or stark beauty. She hated the daily agony of raising her son without his father. She felt empty as a mother. She entered seminary and soon found that she had moved far outside of the boundaries of conventional religious thinking yet sought the "sacred" with each breath. She was fiercely determined not to move from her despair until the next real emotion came along. She had discovered a paradoxical wisdom; that if she was able to sit with the searing pain of her loss, the fire that burned her also freed her. She tried graduate school again, this time she enrolled in a spiritually oriented depth psychology masters program in California. She used her own personal story as the fundamental ground for her master's thesis on working with catastrophic loss. Today she is a brilliant therapist. She raised a curious and loving son. She continues her own soul work. She flew within the gorge, high up in the mountains. She learned to soar. I was lucky enough to fly beside her through in her journey. She taught me about the strength of searing vulnerability. I could offer my presence, holding her pain in my heart along side her until she could metabolize its enormity. Together we found ways to honor her grief. Slowly she found her wings and her way through the darkest gorges.

The night before my surgery a prayer gathering was held for me at the Shambala Buddhist Meditation Center in Austin. Prayers were offered in Hebrew, Arabic, Pali and English from the wisdom traditions of the Middles East and Asia. Poetry and song, also forms of prayer were offered. Over 100 people came that night, she was one of them. She had printed a copy of Rilke's poem and the passage from Moby Dick on a piece of muted green paper with a little note that said, "Gaea, I’m holding you in my heart. With much love, Candyce". She reminded me of the great strength of the body, the possibility of healing and the soaring of the eagle in the high mountain gorge. She beckoned me to have faith in the night. She reminded me of the power of her own healing journey. She had come now to help heal the therapist who had journeyed beside her in the dark places.

Yesterday my friend, Ariel Jordan, sent me an essay by Daniel Goleman on the neurobiology of emotional healing ( see posting on mirror neurons) Goleman, well know for his work on emotional intelligence, wrote about a beloved professor who had lived with cancer for over a decade, far beyond the stark prognostic indicators of his diagnosis. Goleman suggests that he may have stayed alive and well for so many years because the physiological impact of the great flow of people from all over the world who loved him and considered him a lifelong friend. There is a deep connection between relationship and physical health. Research indicates that people with rich interpersonal networks, active in their social and religious groups recover more quickly and live longer when faced with severe illness.

I have taken the poem down from the wall. It sits before me at my computer as I begin to reflect upon my own journey with cancer .We know instinctively that loving connection nurtures the soul, that compassionate presence alleviates suffering, making the unbearable bearable. Only recently have we begun to understand that emotional solace is biologically grounded. MRI studies show that just the simplest contact, the touch of the hand from a loved one, greatly reduces heightened anxiety and the stress response in the brain circuitry. Through the intricacy of neural networks in the brain we come to understand the mind and body in relationship. Mirror neurons in the brain track emotional flow, movement and even intention between people. These interpersonal orchestrations shift physiology. When someone compassionately bears witness to our suffering, holding out a hand, we feel held and not alone. We may have flown down into the darkest of gorges but up again we soar into the sunny places.

In my journey with cancer it is the sense of connection that has held me and padded the corners. From the initial diagnosis, through the surgery and the up and down days of chemo therapy with side effects ranging from severe nausea to deep impenetrable bone pain, I have felt as though I have been carried in the arms of love. Even with a prognosis that leaves me feeling quite vulnerable, I have found the vulnerability a necessary ingredient in opening fully to the many rich and wondrous relationships that sustain me, to the kindness of strangers and to the work of spiritual practice. I have given myself permission to turn attention away from that which does not nurture my soul. Where I have suffered rejection or disappointment, a radical new acceptance has mysteriously emerged from deep within my body bringing with it the flush of self acceptance. My mind has become my ally rather than my wedded enemy. Clinical work has deepened; in some cases I am much softer and more compassionate, and in other cases much more impatient. It is a gift to be reminded of death as it hones the awareness that time is so precious. Cancer brings many gifts. They aren’t wrapped with bows, so you have to pay attention. Cancer, if you let it, will train your eyes to see, so you can dive down into the darkest gorges, and by staying connected you can soar out of them again, becoming both invisible and visible in the sunny places.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i could never understand this concept of the "gifts" of cancer, or becoming a happier or more enlightned person through this kind of hardship. From my own experience, it has ruined my life, and robbed me of a future, while giving me nothing but terror and anxiety in return. i loved life and my people before this "gift", and it has served only to strain my relationships.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Poetry, Courage, and Cancer said...

Cancer requires that you become more mindful. It can ruin your life or enliven your life, strain your relationships or deepen your relationships. The difference is entirely in how you work with it.


7:40 PM  
Blogger Jon LA said...

When I read your writing as I just did this morning, I’m as always, so hugely impressed with your courage and character.

The harsh, sad reality and honesty of the anonymous poster, is something I can also understand, and have both empathy and sympathy for where that person is coming from.

If could, would rather soar in the high air brushing wings with your strength and attitude. And be buoyed by a wonderful, loving support group such as is yours… which is yours by virtue of your spirit, grace love, sacrifice and caring.

Cancer should know better than to set its sights on one as awesome, powerful and shamanic as thou.

Now here we are, your final chemo tomorrow! : )

Ten feet tall is the letter size of the word CONGRATULATIONS I send you. And maybe in even larger type, T H A N K Y O U ! ! ! to all those higher powers that have seen you through these incredible times.

Love Love Love, J.
And Yea Yea Yea Gaea!

9:28 AM  

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