Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

From the very beginning we fight for life, pushing through the moist darkness of the womb, towards the light of the world, and that first breath. We relied upon the strangers who were there, welcoming us with open arms; kind strangers without whom we would not have survived. I have often been moved by the occurrence of an intimate conversation with a taxi driver or someone sitting next to me on a plane when against all odds there is a recognition, an attunement across culture, race, age or privilege. It might be expressed in a smile or a glance or an act of kindness a sense of being joined by similarity rather than difference. The woman behind the counter sees my tired eyes and offers me coffee on the house. On my way home from work each day I pass the homeless woman manning her corner on the freeway overpass. She says she prays every day for me. She could tell I had cancer last year because I was bald. So could Cory, a very buff and handsome young black man who would often jog past me each Thursday morning on the hike and bike trail. “You are my inspiration,” he would say.

A neighbor told me his parents had battled cancer in another state. He couldn’t be there to care for them. He wondered if he could help me as a way to give back to the world for the strangers that had helped his parents. Every week through my battle with cancer, people I barely knew dropped off organic meals lovingly prepared. A woman who my son worked with in Costa Rica send me a tiny red thread to wear around my neck. It had been blessed by the Dalai Lama. I have never even spoken to her. My ex husband, although not a stranger, went with me to every doctors appointment and every chemo session so that I wouldn't be alone. In the early days when I was recovering from the surgery, he placed a wooden angel over my bed. Every night he tucked me in to sleep throughout the long months undergoing chemo and radiation. Something about cancer, and perhaps breast cancer in particular, seems to move some people to their deepest compassion.

My friend Lexi, a breast cancer survivor ahead of me by one year, emailed me the other day. Her dear friend Alexandria, a beautiful young 34 year old woman was having a mastectomy that day. Lexi was crocheting a “love blanket” for Alexandria and her husband. Lexi’s orchestrated each of Alexandria’s friends and family from all across the country. Each picked out a special color of very soft ball of wool, imagined infusing it with love and then tied a little note to the ball expressing the prayerful intention of the sender. Lexi remembered that when she had cancer some of the things she appreciated the most were the gifts and kindnesses that came from complete strangers. Lexi asked if I would like to find some wool to contribute to this many coloured blanket. How could I say no? Lexi was a stranger who had come into my life. Lexi made a similar “love blanket” for me this time last year from the threads of yearn sent to her in secrecy from my friends and family from all over the world. Strangers, who I still have not met, friends of Lexi's sent yarn and prayers as well. I wrapped up in it every night. I especially remember its softness when the bone pain reached excruciating levels as one medication created so many white blood cells in my bone marrow that I could feel the bones as if they were being stretched from the inside.

Now a year later I am meeting Lexi and her husband, Mark, for dinner in a local vegan restaurant. I hadn’t seen them for many months. Much can happen over a year besides a cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemo and radiation. I now have sexy, spiky hair. As Dr Doty, my oncologist says, “Any hair is a good hair day” . My strength is coming back. From the searing perspective of cancer, it is possible to let go of old wounds and recognize when certain relationships are no longer sustainable. Gratitude and delight lurk in new corners. I made friends with a wild dolphin over the summer on an island off the coast of Ireland. He put his nose an inch from my hand and rotated his whole body from side to side so that he could look at me with both eyes. I made friends with a Khen Rimpoche, Tibetan monk, on the anniversary of my diagnosis. We spent a weekend talking and laughing about the the nature of the dharma. "Practice suffering change", he said to me as we walked from the hot desert sun into the air conditiong. I watched him eat ice cream at the Bellagio Hotel and look with wonder at the lights of Las Vegas at night. An unlikely encounter with spirit. I know he still remembers the day the Chinese tanks rolled into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and annihilated the world as he knew it but it has not prevented him from joy. He gave me prayer flags to bless my home so that my prayers could be carried on the wind.

In the early months of recovery from treatment, I had the opportunity to present at the American Group Psychotherapy Conference on “Mindfulness and Healing Trauma”. I experienced the arc of my life this September as I walked in silence in support of the Buddhist monks in Burma in the UCLA sculpture gardens across the street from my high school with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hahn, Jack Kornfield, and Dan Siegel. This year also I have watched my son turn into a man. This year I have witnessed my mothers decline into Alzheimer’s.

Today Lexi and I both are selling our homes, creating new spaces for our new lives. She and Mark have bought a condo. I am designing and building a green home. Austin is better than the rest of the country but it is still a sluggish real estate market.

“How are you coping ?”, Lexi asks. Lexi was just diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and heart damage from the chemotherapy.

“You mean, about the condo not selling yet? or are you talking about the fear of recurrence?”

“Yeah, about the condo. What’s your coping strategy?”

I am quiet for a moment. “Same as with cancer…I breathe and come back to this astonishing and unrepeatable moment and move forward into the unknown from there’

I notice the soft ball of purple yarn I have just given Lexi for Alexandria’s blanket. I think again about the kindness of strangers. I realize that the stranger I have come to know is myself.

Love After Love

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the others welcome, and say, sit here. Eat

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate


peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life

- Derek Walcott