Monday, January 31, 2011

Deep Healing

One of my favorite healing stories occurs in Mark’s gospel. It’s an interruption story, really—Jesus is on his way to heal the dying daughter of the synagogue’s ruler, Jairus. She’s a clearly beloved child, just twelve years old. Jairus comes to Jesus and prostrates himself, begging for her healing, calling her “my little daughter.” Whatever it was Jesus had thought he was going to do that day changes; Mark says simply, “So he went with him.”
            A woman suffering from hemorrhages approaches Jesus in the crowd that presses against him. Having decided that simply touching his clothes will make her well, she violates the purity taboos (Jesus will be made ritually unclean by her touch, even on his clothing). When she touches him, two things occur at once: she is healed and knows it, and Jesus senses power flowing out of him and stops to find out where that power went.
            He stops—spare a moment of pity for poor, distracted Jairus, who, having found Jesus, is trying to lead him to his home as quickly as possible. When Jairus went to find Jesus, his daughter was at the point of death; who knows how long it took him to get to Jesus. But Jesus stops, intent on finding out who touched him, a request even his own disciples find ludicrous in view of the crowd pressing around him.
            I doubt that Jesus needed to be told who touched him. If he could sense power going from him, he could figure out where it went. The question then isn’t for his sake, but for the sake of the woman. She comes, in fear and trembling, the text says, and like Jairus falls before him, telling him “the whole truth”—and I wonder how long that took.
            Jesus has all the time in the world, regardless of the hand-wringing Jairus, who cannot know that Jesus will soon raise his daughter from the dead. He listens, and then tells her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
            This at first seems like an odd statement; after all, the woman has already felt the healing power, and Jesus knew power had gone from him. I think about the ritual uncleanness of this woman, who for twelve years has been shunned, certainly by the community and possibly by her own family. Bleeding was shameful; furthermore, Luke’s account says she’s spent all her money on doctors and was without resources (Luke 8:43). Beyond the physical healing, what mental and spiritual healing must this woman have needed? Jesus offers that as well, calling her Daughter, bringing her back into the covenant community.
While cancer is no longer a disease of which we must not speak, something shameful, it does tend to isolate us from those who have no experience of the disease. We may not be overtly shunned—although a friend speaks of seeing someone she knew cross the street to avoid meeting her. Sometimes more than physical healing is required; we need someone to tell us we are well in every way that matters, to undo the damage of feeling an outcast. Sometimes, all it takes is one word.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lessons from the Deer

The deer saw me first, or smelled me more likely, although I was making a racket as I picked my way over the trail’s exposed tree roots and the rocks still muddy from a storm two days earlier. Being young deer and wild, they scrambled out of the narrow river to safety on the opposite shore. I saw two white rumps and raised tails when I finally looked up, expecting nothing more than squirrels.
            Barely hidden by the trees, they stopped and stared. I didn’t move, but bowed and cooed to them of their beauty; I tried to look deer-like—not an easy task, despite the extra “leg” of my stick. My stillness or cooing must have lulled them. After a few moments first one, then the other, took a few steps toward the bank. Slowly, turning several times to check on my deer lawn-statue imitation, they crossed the narrow, shallow river and went on up the cliff.
            I walked the path along the river, marveling at the double gift I’d been granted: to see them at all, then to have them decide I wasn’t danger enough to stop them from reaching their goal. And thus came a third gift—a lesson in persistence.
            Some things are worth doing, even later, even poorly. The deer demonstrated that if I wanted to cross the river, I should do so, despite any cautious delays. “Dreams are like a bird that mocks, flirting the feathers of its tail” says a line from a poem I memorized decades ago. At midlife, I have seen many of my dreams come to fruition, after years of apparent feather-flirting mockery. These fulfillments scare me. A dream comes to pass, and who knows what might change? I’d learned to live without the dreams, even told myself they didn’t matter, all those high-minded ideals of my college days, the deep longings of my thirties.
But if a goal is worth pursuing—even if we briefly lose sight of it—then it’s worth our standing a while in the trees, looking carefully at the apparent danger. We can stand on the bank for as long as necessary, regarding the danger until we recognize it as a chimera, an imaginary monster. The chimeras aren’t real. Neither are the things that frighten us. The message of the risen Christ to the fearful disciples was, “Be not afraid. It is I.” We are no longer children, left alone in the dark with the monsters under the bed or in the closet. We are God’s friends, living out God’s dreams for the world.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Using the Anger

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
Psalm 37: 8

Survivors Teaching Students is a program of the National Ovarian Cancer Alliance. At this point, it’s part of half of the medical schools in the United States, with the goal of reaching every one of them in North America. Another goal is to take the message to those in nursing schools, because nurses often can see the whole person and have time to share information. Ideally, groups of four women—a facilitator and three presenters—speak of their experiences for an hour to third-year medical students about to enter their gynecology rounds. Time for questions follows the presentation, which also reviews the symptoms of this deadliest of women’s reproductive cancers and gives a human face to the disease.
            When Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine agreed to allow the program, I said, Sign me up! Along with half a dozen other women, I received training in telling my story—my symptoms, how I was diagnosed, what my treatment was, and where I am now—preferably in eight minutes or less.
            We’ve recently been invited to speak to two classes of future licensed practical nurses. It’s been a different kind of experience. The medical school students have been receptive, but our message doesn’t always seem to hit them very hard. The nurses-in-training, most of whom are women, many of them training for a second career, have stories of their own to share.
            One of the threads I notice among these women is anger. We who have cancer and those who love us are angry about many things, and justifiably so. The lack of a definitive test for ovarian cancer; the high cost of treatment and of insurance, which sometimes refuses to cover what we need; the unconscionable profits of the drug companies making the controlled poisons that have kept us alive; the petrochemical and agribusiness corporations that have poisoned our food supply and degraded the land; family members who perhaps put us at risk by their behavior when we were children; and the sometimes apparent indifference of medical people or family—it’s a wonder that we don’t self-combust.
We have a right to this righteous anger. The only problem is that anger alone doesn’t help. If it motivates us to write letters and circulate petitions, well and good. If we use it as fuel to tell others what we’ve learned about things medical, that’s terrific. But anger that simply smolders in us is corrosive and interferes with healing. We may need to journal our anger, giving it a voice; to do some serious weeding in the garden to expend it usefully; or to pray the imprecatory psalms, the ones that shock us with calls for vengeance. Every person’s anger will manifest differently, and recur to be dealt with again. Anger is a side effect that we need to channel for good rather than letting it eat our joy or infect those we love.

Friday, January 28, 2011

With Open Eyes

I wrote this during chemotherapy a few years ago, when I was experiencing insomnia as a result of the drugs.
My eyes are open in the night watches, that I might meditate upon your promise.
Psalm 119:148

            A manic phase is common after chemotherapy, at least the kind I had. Call me stubborn or call me stupid—I didn’t think the rules applied to me. I generally had no trouble sleeping; I’ve always claimed that eating and sleeping were my specialties. So my first experiences with chemo-induced insomnia took me by surprise.
            My first response was not, “Oh, goody, I get to stay awake and meditate on God's promises!” Some people opt for sleeping pills, needing their rest, holding down jobs and families. With the luxury of working at home, I didn’t need to be fresh for eight hours at the office the next day, and only the cats depended on me at home. I determined to experience whatever chemo meant; if that included wakeful Friday nights, so be it.
            I’d had insomnia before on rare occasions. It had yielded to the goddess of sleep most nights after I fixed a cup of decaf tea and some toast, then journaled. During chemo, I tried that formula again with mixed success.
            Last night, though, I didn’t get up to journal. One of the [admittedly few] benefits of cancer is learning to use insomnia as prayer time. Oh, I’ll admit prayer is also a trick to induce sleep. But for however long I’m awake, I move across the country geographically, mentioning those dear to me in an east-west, north-south sweep. Sometimes I’m conscious enough to pray for national or world events. Some nights I begin by reciting memorized psalms, which do provide fodder for meditating on God. “The Lord is my shepherd” or “The Lord is my light and my salvation” are texts to ponder. The psalms have the added advantage of working well as breath prayer, inhaling on the first half of the verse, exhaling on the last half. It’s soothing, lulling. It beats fretting over the stock market.
            I don’t believe God sends us cancer. I do feel that God is with us in the midst of cancer and never wastes an opportunity to draw us closer to the divine heartbeat. Praying for others and meditating on Scripture during wakeful nights is not the end, but the means—to a richer life, a deeper knowledge of ourselves and God, a way to minister to others when we’re so sick or tired that it seems we have nothing left to give. We can give our insomnia, our concern for others, our attentiveness in the night watches. That’s a lot. Enough.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Our Frail Flesh

 Remember, Lord, how short life is, how frail you have made all flesh. Who can live and not see death? who can save himself from the power of the grave?
Psalm 89: 47, 48 Book of Common Prayer

Another of my ovarian cancer sisters died recently. It doesn’t matter that we were together only a handful of times since I first met her. By then, she was already declining, but bubbly still, with flashes of wit and insight that let me know this was no dotty woman a few years my senior. The care and devotion her sister gave was enough to make me regret, once more, never having had a sister.
            I watch those of us with cancer trying treatments that promise to extend our lives. Some opt for clinical trials, like the woman at my church who told me that the treatments hurt, but she would do anything to keep one more person from having her rare cancer. Others try another chemotherapy drug when the cancer comes back, or head for more surgery.
            We are all going to die. We forget this in the midst of busy lives and just-around-the-corner dreams and goals. I once regularly told God on my walks in the woods, “I want to do this for another twenty years, please.” I imagined myself, possibly frail enough to need a walking stick even when walking on level ground, or in a motorized wheelchair hitting the trails that accommodated such vehicles. After my first surgery, what I most wanted was to get back to the woods, and I was grateful to the friend who took me there and made sure I didn’t overdo it that frosty morning. Now the idea of another twenty years seems preposterous some days. According to statistics that my oncologist urges me to ignore, I have a 50-50 chance of surviving for five years with ovarian cancer. (He says the stats are not accurate, lumping all patients together, when some of us have improved our odds through a successful surgery or enough chemo.) I feel fine today, but I’ve learned that how I feel doesn’t mean anything.
            Our flesh is frail. I didn’t know this in my early and midlife years. Not really, not in my body. I was never athletic or especially graceful, and I’ve spent many years living in my head only. But I could count on my flesh to be there—it was sturdy and complained very little. Now, between the cancer that revisits and the normal aging processes, I am aware of frailty.
            We are all going to die. The good news for most of us is, not today. How, then, to invest these twenty-four hours with meaning and goodness? That is the real question, Prince Hamlet. I will assume I am going to continue to be, for today at least, and I will not let myself be consumed by the trivia and effluvia of the wider culture. Do what matters, hopefully for someone besides just myself. Because my flesh is frail, too, and I will not be here forever.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tasting and Seeing

I've needed several outpatient surgeries because of the cancers. This meditation was written in the spring of 2009, after one of them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
Psalm 34:8, New Revised Standard Version

Having cancer means having the opportunity to learn a great deal more about my body than I ever wanted to know. Because I am being carefully monitored, I know now that I also have celiac disease, which means that I can’t digest gluten. Gluten is the protein in wheat, rye, and barley that makes bread taste good and is added to a host of other products as well. I wouldn’t care, except that the information on celiac threatens me with intestinal cancer if I keep ingesting gluten. Two cancers are enough.
 In a congregation of more than a hundred people, two of us have been diagnosed with celiac disease. So my priest ordered special wafers for us that she sets on the side of the paten.
             Our hymn during Eucharist recently was “Taste and See,” a melodious setting of Psalm 34. As I knelt to receive my special rice communion wafer and sip of wine, everything collided in my head: the song; the taste of a gluten-free Body of Christ; the generous gulp of wine the chalice bearer served me, so that it nearly ran down my chin; and the fact that I was five days out from another surgery and not eating much or with joy.
            Wednesday had been my fifth outpatient surgery in twenty-seven months. Strangely, in between I forget how these invasive procedures affect my body. I rarely lose my appetite; this time, however, food didn’t appeal. The experience of not eating for a few days had caused me to think about fasting, about Jesus, Moses, and Elijah going without food for forty days. About how much easier it is to fast when the mind is preoccupied, whether with prayer or pain.
            Years ago, someone pointed out in a sermon that the exhortation of this verse seems backwards—normally, we look at food before we taste it. No, says the psalmist—eat, and you will see that the Lord is good. The whole of Christianity is trust. Eat this thing, this cancer that is trying to eat you first, and see that the Lord is good.
            Make no mistake—I don’t like having cancer, and I’m not one of those people who say they wouldn’t trade the experience and what they’ve learned. Call me shallow—I’d like my complete health back, a freedom from worry about the next recurrence/checkup/surgery, and all the money I’ve paid out to be well on this drippy gray spring morning. I love the people I’ve met. I’ve even adjusted a bit to being lavishly cared for and knowing I’m deeply loved. But I’d happily go back to a life that didn’t include knowledge of my own mortality and that of those who are important to me.
            I am still tasting and seeing. Gluten-free rice wafers are crunchier and tastier than the standard wafer. I think they’d be great with cheese. I don’t like having celiac any more than I like having cancer, but I can taste and see that the Lord is good.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

While I’m Waiting

 In 2008, a CATscan discovered my second cancer. I'd been prepared for a recurrence of the ovarian cancer but not for an entirely new cancer. I wrote this piece while waiting for the medical profession to determine whether the mass that had been removed was bladder cancer or a recurrence. Last November was the first time since then that no tumors were observed in the lumen of my bladder, a real point of rejoicing.

 I am waiting, once again, for word on a biopsy. No one has suggested that this might be benign; the second opinion is merely to determine what sort of cancer this is. The latest oncologist disagrees with the pathology report, the surgeon, and the first oncologist. It’s thus too soon to discuss treatment options or for anyone to be giving me projected time lines of where I might be on the actuarial tables.
Many days, the uncertainty has made me a bit crazy. Today, however, I am just crazily happy, realizing that I have today, and that today is all we ever have. In the shower, I played What if? What if this were the last day, no warning? Great thinkers and teachers tell us that we all need to live as if we had only today. Jesus said, “Take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow will take thought for itself.” (Matthew 6) Most days, like everyone else, I still believe I have many days to come, cancer or no cancer. Oncologist Number One says this disease is “manageable.”
Playing What if leads me to consider what constitutes a life well lived. Writer Anne Lamott speaks for me when she says she wants to have eaten chocolate on the day she dies. So I have had a Hershey kiss and an unbaked fudge cookie. I have walked in a spring drizzle to the library for books of and about poetry. I’ve listened to choirs performing on YouTube and to Composer’s Datebook, a public radio show of which I’m very fond. I’ve corresponded with friends on e-mail, and just put a load of sheets and towels into the washing machine, which means fresh sheets on my bed tonight. In a few hours, I will gather with others to practice qigong.
It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s my life, and I like it, a statement I couldn’t always make. I have cancer worries and cash crunch worries nibbling at me, but try not to give them too much space. Here’s what’s really important: I remembered the words to a choral piece I sang with my high school choir (has it really been forty years ago?!) and found it sung on YouTube, where one song leads to another and I could be lost all day. The best performance of the “Geographical Fugue” I found is by the Lusavoric Choir, which is, I think, from Albania, which gave me an excuse to use the Geographical Dictionary and find out useless trivia about that country. If my mind has something to puzzle about, other than cancer and checkbook balances, it’s happy.
I look out the patio door and there’s the squirrel who’s been clambering about all day, finally enjoying the square of stale cornbread I set out for her. I’ve fed my two cats and the newest stray, too, and so have benefitted the world by my existence. It’s a good day to be alive.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lonely Bird

I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
Psalm 102:6, 7 NRSV

The note in my New Revised Standard Version says this psalm is “A prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the LORD.” I don’t know what the psalmist was experiencing when writing these words, but the images sure sound like cancer to me. In addition to wilderness and waste places, the psalm also refers to groaning loudly, eating ashes for bread and dropping tears in my drink, withering like grass, and feeling as if God has picked me up and tossed me aside. For the first eleven verses, metaphors of misery pile up on the page.
            Cancer is a wilderness, a waste place. We live there, even if we’re well enough to keep working and caring for our families during treatment. Our bodies are wasted, if not by the disease, then by the treatment. We are tired, and our minds are weary beyond anything we’ve ever known; yet too many nights we lie awake, thinking, praying, hoping, pleading. In the night, we are especially lonely birds, perhaps missing the camaraderie of our chemo buddies and the comforting competence of our chemo nurse or our doctor.
Even the people who are dearest to us cannot help if they have not had cancer themselves; they do not know what it feels like to slosh around with a belly full of healing chemicals suspended in fluid, or to struggle to eat because everything—even water—tastes metallic. Some of us do try to spare and shield those we love, but the truth is, there aren’t words to communicate what this experience is like.
            In verse 12 of the psalm, there is a turning point, beginning with those lovely words “But you, O LORD.” When I shift the focus from myself and my wilderness, I observe a contrast. God endures forever. My days may be shortened, as verse 23 reminds, and earth and heaven both will perish, but God endures and is unchanging. And somehow, because we are in God, we too will go on, in ways we cannot yet understand.
The pain and the loneliness are real—I do not mean to mitigate the horror that is cancer. It’s just that pain and loneliness are not the only or the final words, not in this psalm and not in our lives. We need to keep reading the psalm, keep reading our lives, to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Living as if Dying

This is another meditation  written in the past to celebrate the coming of spring. With low temperatures outside and more snow than we've seen in years, I'm ready for spring!

You have showed me great trouble and adversities, but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth. You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me.
Psalm 71:20, 21 Book of Common Prayer

When I was growing up, I was taught that the Bible was God’s love letter to me, that I should therefore read it every day, that its words were written for my benefit. I was encouraged to “claim” the promises for my own, regardless of the fact that they were written by and for a people of long ago. The word of God was alive and applicable to my teenage angst, as well as to the larger problems of the world.
            Old habits die hard. I still read the psalms as if they were written for me. (Well, Saint Paul says they were in Romans 15:4, and goodness knows it’s a comfort to be able to agree with Paul on much of anything.) I hear a word of God spoken to me most mornings, look for it in fact, in works written more than twenty centuries ago. And I generally find something, perhaps because, as a psychology professor of mine once said, “All things being equal, we tend to perceive what we wish to perceive.”
            I wish to perceive both of my back-to-back cancers as medical flukes in an otherwise healthy life. I have returned to my original plan: living until I don’t want to live any more and dying quietly in my sleep, without pain, fuss, or bother to anyone. And so when I read this morning about a restored life, about strength and comfort, I hang onto those words.
            The truth is, there are only two ways to live: as if we will live forever, or as if we are dying. I have crossed the boundary of those two lands; I know I am going to die, know it viscerally, giving death the exigence it never had before my diagnosis. A few years years ago I was care-free, worried about trivial things—a cash flow crunch and what to wear to my brother’s wedding. Now I find myself jotting down notes to supplement the provisions of my will.
But I also find myself appreciating everything even more this spring —I am enchanted by the flowering quince, by birds swooping on wind currents, and by a raccoon that crossed my path and disappeared into a tree. I have always enjoyed the coming of spring, but not with the intensity of someone who spent three of four Fridays every month in chemotherapy, and who spent the days between treatments recovering and building up strength to face the next round. In some ways, I missed spring that year; I wasn’t strong enough to venture down by the river, and so missed the hillsides of trillium and Virginia bluebells. Now I am absorbing the bright spring green of new leaves with every sense I have, grateful for increased strength, for the restoring of life thus far. But never again able to take it for granted.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Restored to Health

O LORD my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, O LORD, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
Psalm 30:2, 3 Book of Common Prayer

            I enjoyed good health for forty years and was completely unprepared for a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. My first reaction was the fear of dying, which explains why I submitted to chemotherapy, even though, watching a friend go through chemo, I’d told myself I never would. Near the end of treatment, my entire body sick from the chemicals, I felt like death and wanted to die. Slowly, slowly, I regained my health and didn’t think I had brain cancer every time I got a headache.
            Being restored to health is an enormous blessing, not to be taken for granted. I’ve discovered, moving into my fourth year with no recurrence of the ovarian cancer, that it’s a two-edged sword, however. I do not want the cancer to return, but I am saddened by the reality of my friends who are facing another round of treatment or those who have already died. How is it that—when we all make the same lifestyle changes involving diet, cleaning products, spiritual practice—I am the one restored to health? I know this good health may not last, but it is a mystery while it does, one with which I am not entirely comfortable.
            This, the fourth anniversary of putting in the port through which my chemo would be delivered, has already been an important month for me. January is also the month during which a friend decided to stop all treatment, dying a few weeks later. I’ve attended the funeral of another dear woman who died unexpectedly following surgery. I’ve seen my oncologist, who has stretched my visits to six months rather than four. Yesterday, I took part in a Survivors Teaching Students forum at the local hospital, where the medical school students meet. After the session, as is my custom, I went over to the gynecology office to see “my” nurses.
            Only God can restore us to health and keep us in health, but during that visit I discovered a superstitious streak I’d not known was there. My chemo nurse invited me to sit down, gesturing to one of the recliners, all now empty of chemo patients. I refused, not wanting to get comfortable in that spot. If I don’t sit in a chemo chair, I won’t ever need one again. All kindness, she offered me the desk chair instead.
            I had a conversation about survivor guilt with my oncologist, who could offer no insight as to the cancers that returned and those that did not. I’ve already told God and him that I won’t take this well if/when the cancer returns. I’ve mentally rehearsed the conversation with my oncologist—what I’ll say to God about it remains unknown. I have seen my friends restored to health multiple times; I suspect the same could be true for me. But I will never again take the health that God has restored for granted.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Choosing the Way of Faithfulness

The bears are right—winter is the time to sleep, with occasional forays for food. Although I live in a place where winter often means snow—and this year there’s a lot of it—my preference for hibernation is sorely challenged by commitments to work and church. I tend toward one of two extremes when facing the prospect of driving in the winter. “Just try it and see,” is the one I use to coax myself out of a warm house. I’m not too proud to turn back if it’s bad, because my other mantra is, “You are not delivering the serum that will save the village.”

            This morning the radio announcer said it was icy out, always a warning signal for me. Then again, I know that he’s  in the studio for a shift that begins at 6 a.m.; by the time I would need to leave for quilting and Wednesday healing Eucharist, the roads would have been salted and traveled. I still didn’t want to go; it was one of those mornings when I question what difference my presence or absence might make to anyone.
            Still, I’d gotten up and written my morning pages (a three-age mind dump, courtesy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way); breakfast-with-psalms was next in my morning routine. When my rational mind takes over, I realize the absurdity of believing that a word penned thousands of years ago to another people might be God’s word to me on a snowy January day. Nevertheless, I’ve been taught that God does speak through the Scriptures, and I find that idea comforting. When I read Psalm 119:30, “I have chosen the way of faithfulness,” I knew I’d just have to try the roads, even if they were, most likely, drifted over.
            Choosing the way of faithfulness is a series of lifelong small decisions, what Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson has aptly called “a long obedience in the same direction.” Choosing the way of faithfulness is its own reward, although sometimes those rewards don’t look like much.
            I’d like to report that something big and miraculous happened while I was at church, that I was clearly the right person there at the right time. But it was just another Wednesday, with a few of us gathered to eat and drink together, just the common grace.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Song Wins

Two years ago, the choral group of which I am a member was working on a challenging piece of music. Soon, we will begin this year's rehearsals for a still more advanced piece. And it's not spring right now, snow coming down like powdered sugar being sifted, but I enjoyed being reminded that green will return.

O sing to the LORD a new song: sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
Psalm 96:1, 2

            Neither musician nor Latin scholar, I’m struggling with one of the pieces in Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. The Latin syllables and the eighth notes combine faster than my Anglo tongue can get them out. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that our concert is three days away.
            The Web resource Choral Midi Files has a recording of the work that will hammer out the notes for each part. Daily I’ve been clicking alto on Et Resurrexit, trying to get my mouth to move faster. So far, what has resulted is that I am confident of the notes, and the tune—and surrounding tunes—is playing in my head most of the time, even if I’m foggy on what syllable goes with the tune.
            Et Resurrexit—And he rose. A perfect time of the year to be singing this, between Easter and Pentecost, when the village has passed from its yellow forsythia to its purple redbud and lilac glory. The deer stop by to nibble new leaves and the birds exult each morning.
            This morning I was not exulting. I made three phone calls trying to set up payment plans for my account balances to radiologists, anesthesiologist, and the hospital. Being sick is expensive. All of the people I spoke with were gracious and understanding—but they need to be paid. And I am experiencing one of the dreaded cashflow crunches that comes with being a freelancer.
            So my mood was bleak as I contemplated my walk. I’d intended to walk to the post office, less than a mile away, waiting to start the car until time to leave for tonight’s rehearsal with the orchestra. But I was so down that I decided only the woods and the river would help, and drove the four miles to the trail I felt calling me.
            The woods are always a good idea for me. Little yellow and white flowers, redbud, and Virginia bluebells were out. Three young mothers with four young children were on the trail; one of the children was wearing a kid-sized T-shirt bearing the name of my alma mater. All around me was new life, but in my head I was contemplating whether to sell the car and find a cheaper one to drive.
            My non-rational mind would have none of it. Instead, the mind’s soundtrack had moved past the difficult two pages of Haydn’s Mass and on to a section that makes me smile. Vivos, Vivos, we sing in a way that feels as if we are merrily tossing a beach ball back and forth, even though all the parts are singing it together. Living, living! The deepest part of my being is unconcerned with matters financial, but rollicks like the river beneath the path, thrilled to be alive, whatever the material cost.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


In the fall of 2008, the same weekend that I went on a retreat for women cancer survivors, the beginning of a ten-week journey with this group of women, my region felt the effects of Hurricane Ike. I was a year out of chemo and still shell-shocked from what I'd experienced as a person with cancer. This is what I wrote not long after that storm.

I wonder what the woods sounded like when the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through this area, toppling great trees. It must have been a great din. I walk the paths now, mourning the loss of giants among the forest system, touching the huge trunks gently, thanking them for having been. The gashes distress me. Unbelievably dense root systems now lie at right angles to the ground that supported them.
“That’s like what cancer can do,” I think. Some days it seems as if my root system has also been through an upheaval that has changed everything. I grieve as I see other women back in treatment or dying—women so alive it doesn’t seem possible they could die.
My life outwardly doesn’t look much different than it was before I experienced the first pain of a tumor. I still sit here at the keyboard and try to get words to make the sense I am seeking. I still don’t deal with dishes or piles of paper in a timely way. I’ve kept most of my routines, because I still like them and they’re comforting. I walk in the woods, still, glad for the strength to do so.
But everything is different. I know a woman who says she doesn’t think about having had cancer. Her surgery was less than a year ago. Though I don’t doubt her word, I don’t understand how she can say that.
I was so not going to be changed by having cancer. I was willing to become nicer, which hasn’t happened to any appreciable degree. But I am now constantly aware of life’s fleeting nature, of how all flesh, as the Bible says, is as grass in its brevity. And that makes it all so much more precious to me now.
Today in the grocery store, a small boy suddenly stared at me (he’d been watching his feet on the linoleum tiles) and then greeted me with a smile, “Hi, Dude.” His father began to explain that Dude was what he could call Dad; it was their special way of talking, but one didn’t use it on other people. “Good luck,” I thought, as I passed them. I smiled, because the boy was charming, because life was there in the paper goods aisle.
The trees don’t get another chance. I do. More than ever, I want to live wisely and to be kind. It’s all any of us have to give.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Distress is Known

I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy; for you have seen my affliction; you know my distress.
Psalm 31:7 Book of Common Prayer

            I had two contrary impulses during chemo: I wanted to cocoon and I wanted to be among friends. When I began the journey, a friend told me it was important to see or talk to someone daily, even though that was not my introverted style. “I think your life may literally depend on it,” she told me.
            As a cancer survivor herself, this woman had credibility, and so I took her counsel seriously. I didn’t generally let people see me at my worst, however. Very few people saw me cry. Because I had such a severe case of cradle cap, I wouldn’t let people see me bald. When I went in to have my port removed, I explained to the kind nurse attending me in pre-op that I didn’t want my doctor to see my bald, scabby head, even though I knew that was irrational. “We’ll just put your surgery cap on now,” she said, and brought me a selection of rubber caps. I have no illusions that this device worked perfectly, but I was under anaesthesia by the time it failed.
            So this passage comforts me. God has seen my affliction; God knows my distress over cancer and the results of the treatment. It is, as the psalmist says, a mercy to be seen and known, to feel that our experiences are not going unnoticed.
            Modern physics tells us that the simple act of viewing a cell changes it. The very fact that God sees my affliction changes it. I am not alone in my cocoon, but am being watched over by a merciful God.
            Jesus never experienced chemotherapy, but I believe that he understands it. Although its purpose is to heal rather than to kill, chemo is a modern, hygenic form of crucifixion. I didn’t think it was an accident that I had chemo on Good Friday. And I was more than ready for a resurrection.
That rebirth comes slowly, though; it requires more than three days. For healthy cells to repair and the body to regain its strength takes weeks and months after the chemo ends. With each positive check-up, our distress is lessened just a bit. We begin to hope again, to invest each day with as much joy as we possibly can, to appreciate in new ways the companionship of Jesus.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cancer Cures

            “Have you had a massage lately?” Ellen asked me. “It’s very good for the immune system.”
            “I haven’t had one recently. It will have to wait; I’ve got a cashflow crunch.”
            “Let me know when you’re coming to town; I won’t charge you.”
            And instead of demurring as usual, or saying I was fine, I spoke my new reply to such offers: “That’s so kind; thank you.”
            Cancer has almost completely cured me of at least one thing—my very severe case of what I call Single Woman Syndrome. My response to being never-married was to develop the ability in nearly all situations to be able to say, however untruthfully, “No, thanks, I’ve got it. I can manage.”
            I’d read my Bible faithfully from adolescence. I knew that Saint Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) Somehow, I never got the reciprocity in that verse, which, to be fair, I usually did hear preached as my call to bear someone else’s burdens. Except in times of deep crisis, such as the death of a parent, I tried to be self-sufficient, or at least not clingy-dependent.
            But cancer changed that. Although I did really well with my chemo regimen, I finally became three-naps-a-day tired. I was too tired to protest my friends’ floods of kindness, too tired to assure them I was fine. What little energy I had was needed to get through the day’s tasks, not to be wasted in lying convincingly.
            Cancer taught me that I’m connected to others, curing me of the notion of Self-Reliance that I’d absorbed from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the music of Paul Simon. I was not a rock or an island; I felt pain and I cried. There is still aloneness and sometimes loneliness in the solitude of my chosen life, but there is no longer the sense that I can make it alone. I’ve discovered that people are willing to help, even though I’ve moved out of the active treatment phase into the remission-for-now phase. After trying to prove to everyone that I could do it alone, I’m willing to let others be kind to me.
            So on Saturday I will go to Ellen’s and let her hands smooth out the soreness from working and beginning my spring walking regimen. I will help her fulfill the law of Christ, which is love, by being open to receive that love.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cheering Consolations

When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.
Psalm 94:19

            “It’s always something,” proclaimed a character created by comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Cancer feels that way. If it’s not time for another round of chemo, it’s fatigue, or the way everything begins to taste like metal. And once treatment ends, it’s the fear of a recurrence, or the tingling in the hands and feet, the ringing in the ears.
            Cancer is a many-care disease. Like all chronic conditions, it isn’t resolved with a single event, such as a bypass operation. It doesn’t go away like the flu. I’ve been told there will come a day when I don’t wake up and think about cancer, but that day hasn’t yet arrived.
            And yet. Even when we are at our lowest points, consolations abound if we choose to see them. I have a friend who plunks herself down in a chair and watches the birds at her many feeders, lets the sun warm her face through the sliding glass door. There were days I could do little more than lie on the couch and look at the green leaves unfolding, but they were a comfort nonetheless.
            Perhaps, if you have the energy, you could keep a notebook listing the consolations that you receive. This written record does several things. It helps us connect to the world that is larger than our disease and treatment. It serves as a reminder of God’s faithfulness, often communicated through friends and the medical community. It causes gratitude, a great strengthener. It grounds us in the present moment, keeping in the background the fears of what might happen, rather than allowing them to beat out a frantic rhythm in the mind.
            Most importantly, we must allow ourselves to be consoled, not to deny our grief or to pretend to a strength we don’t possess. The word console of course means to give comfort, and Lord knows there’s much for which we need comfort: the loss of body parts and the scars from surgery, the loss of our freedom as healthy and strong persons, the ongoing treatment and checkups and fears. Place the accent on a different syllable, though, and the word becomes a noun—the console of an organ or, back in the fifties, of a television set. The console wrapped around the instrument or the entertainment. So, too, we are to allow the consolations God sends, in whatever form we find them, to wrap around us and assure us of God’s love.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I’m Going Fishing, Again

I love Saint Peter for his impetuous yet practical nature. When Jesus called him to fish for people, his life turned upside down. Yet according to John’s Gospel, even after the resurrection, Peter does what most of us do when we don’t know what to do: he goes back to what he did before. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it worked well for a long time. So when Peter, standing by the Sea of Tiberias with six other disciples, suddenly says, “I’m going fishing,” the others go, too.
            At least two of those others—James and John—had been, like Peter, professional fishermen before Jesus walked into their lives. The sea is the same, the feel of the oars, the muscle memory of rowing and hauling up the nets, which are disappointingly empty. Peter is not the same, however, nor are the others. And the fish aren’t swimming into the nets. This, too, they must have remembered: the nights when they worked hard for nothing.
            At daybreak, a man on the shore is grilling some fish they didn’t catch. He calls to them, asking them to put down the net again, this time on the right side of the boat. The net is now soggy and heavy, harder to toss out and pull in, so this isn’t an easy command to heed. But the net comes back full of fish, so many that the men have trouble hauling the net into the boat.
            This morning I took heart from that story. My life, like Peter’s, has been radically changed, not (this time) by a meeting with Jesus, but by a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Now in remission, on the other side of surgery and chemotherapy, my hair and my energy back, I take comfort in doing what I’ve always done, especially writing. Some days, no matter how many words I toil to put down, the net of the page seems empty of anything that will feed and nourish others. I keep doing it, though, because it’s the only way I know how to be. In time I may be asked to do something that seems crazy now, the equivalent of letting the net down on the other side of the boat. I sense vague stirrings that can’t yet be identified or disturbed with too much prodding.
After a diagnosis of cancer—or any other life-altering event—the old patterns don’t seem to work as well. The good news is, Jesus is still among us doing something surprising, cooking up something to feed us.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Table in the Wilderness

They spoke against God saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Psalm 78:19–20

            Cancer is a wilderness like none we’ve ever experienced. It doesn’t matter that we’ve seen God at work in our lives in other ways—all the times that water gushed out over our thirsty and barren lives. For most of us, cancer is the largest, scariest desert we will ever face, and yesterday’s remembered blessings are irrelevant.
            The rest of the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, as it’s retold briefly in the psalm, isn’t pretty. God does provide manna and flesh (“he rained flesh upon them like dust”—can’t you just picture that one, the quail carcasses falling everywhere?). Then God was angry and killed some of them—not because they were hungry, but because they doubted.
            I’m here to dispute the idea that God can’t handle a bit—or a pickup truck full—of doubt. To argue against a God who destroys us for some transgression. To refute any notion that God sends us cancer, whether as a punishment or a test of our faith. I’m a firm believer in the God of Genesis 1 and 2, the Creator of all that is. I have a hard time throwing away even the terrible first drafts of my writing—how could the One who refers to us as a poem (“We are God’s workmanship,” Saint Paul writes, and the Greek word is poema) destroy us?
            The questions of the ancient Israelites are our questions, though. Even if we don’t feel like eating during treatment, we want to know that God can and will set a banquet for us, can give us bread or meat or cheesecake if that’s what we want.
            As I’ve been writing this, the words of a hymn that Isaac Watts paraphrased have been running through my head. Psalm 23 includes a promise of a table spread before my enemies (and have you ever faced a bigger enemy than cancer?). The final verse begins “The sure provision of my God attend me all my days.” Sure provision, all my days, including the one when I cried in chemo—not because I was hurt but because I was already afraid of a recurrence before I was half finished with my regimen.
            Try this image: God as chef, cooking up whatever it is we need most now, willing and eager to feed us. God as my Austrian grandmother, singing as she kneaded dough for bread. Whoever it is in your family or among your friends who loves to cook, to entertain, to put on a spread or take food to people who are ill or grieving. That’s the God I’m talking about, the one with sure provisions for our healing.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Still Singing

How shall we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil?
Psalm 137:4, BCP           

Had we been living in Israel in 586 bce, we would likely have been among those captured when the nation came under the power of Babylon. Resettlement and eventual assimilation was that empire’s foreign policy. As faithful Jews, we might have wondered what God was doing, or resisted the tendency to settle down with foreign spouses and make the best of it.
Perhaps on the way to Babylon, or soon after we arrived, when we were still marked as outsiders, someone said, “Sing us a song of Zion.” They might have been mocking, or they might have been genuinely interested. We would stand mute before them—how could we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil? Singing the LORD’s song in Babylon might even have seemed blasphemy.
When we first enter Cancerland, we stand on alien soil. We are held in thrall to many varieties of medical people, who are ranked as plainly as in any military. They all speak—and may not define clearly—a new, unwelcome tongue. New customs, such as a chemotherapy or radiation, become part of our lives. Most of us resist assimilation. We are here against our wills and don’t want to get too comfortable here. We pray for this to be just a detour, not a new highway on which we will travel for the rest of our lives.
            Singing the LORD’s song sometimes feels impossible. How can we praise God, rather than cast blame? Or sing, when all we want to do is weep or rage? And yet, God needs our voice, albeit ragged with tears, as part of the daily chorus of praise. There is always something for which we can be thankful: a skilled nurse who inserts the IV needle painlessly and in the right vein the first time; another patient who makes us laugh; the cool slither of cheesecake, the only food we can keep down.
            Singing isn’t just for God, or for the benefit of those around us who need to know we are okay. Singing is good for us, a positive force for healing. When I was in chemo, I wasn’t sure if I could commit to the demanding rehearsal schedule and performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The conductor kindly suggested that I come to rehearsals for as long as I could, whether or not I could perform. “Music is so healing,” he said. I found that singing with eighty other people this affirmation of joy filled me with hope, even as I grew weaker and more tired from treatment. If I couldn’t sing in this concert, then the next one. Ultimately, I wasn’t strong enough to perform. The concert coincided with my final treatments, and I didn’t think I could stand long enough to sing, even if I had enough breath to hit the notes. The whole experience, however, taught me something about singing the LORD’s song in alien soil—we must.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Slow, Steady Flame

“I’d rather burn out than rust out!” was a frequent comment I heard from the pastors of my youth. This was usually followed by an exhortation to get off our lazy duffs and begin to let our light shine. To be fair, this was a time before burnout and workaholism were seen to be equally as harmful as rust on a fender. I suspect the word picture was drawn from those fuel booster rockets that detached and burned up in the atmosphere once the spacecraft was on its way to the moon. Complete annihilation in the service of a grander mission—yes, that would have been the style of those preachers.
            The comment came to mind some years ago when I was walking and sometimes jogging along the rim of Clifton Gorge. I pondered whether the pains I got from moving were worse than the pains I get when I don’t move, compared the burning of my muscles to the creakiness of my bones. At my age, some pain is almost unavoidable. I finally decided that the muscle pain, tempered with arnica and massage, was better than the stiffness, and picked up the pace.
            My mind kept working with the choice I’d been offered in that world that so loved black-and-white choices. Now, with the Anglican tradition rooted ever more firmly in my approach to life, I think, “Isn’t there a middle way? Are burning out and rusting out my only two options? What about a nice steady glow, like a long-burning taper at a festive meal?”
            Looking for a role model, I thought of the prophet Jeremiah, a man I really admire. He was telling truth to power, never a very safe job, in ancient Judah, which Babylon, the superpower of the day, was about to conquer. Jeremiah didn’t want the job, lamenting his unique position and the loneliness and outsider status it brought. He didn’t make nice with God either, accusing God of seducing and then abandoning him (Jeremiah 15:15-18).
 Still, he kept doing what God had commissioned him to do, through imprisonment and captivity. Tradition says he died in Egypt, carted there by the unstoppable enemy. By his own testimony, “For twenty-three years… the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” (Jeremiah 25:3) That’s a long time to keep going in the face of rejection. The word persistent catches me. It’s based on a Latin root that means to take a stand. It reminds me of the passage from Ephesians, exhorting the Christians there to “take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:13) Jeremiah must have donned each piece of the armor descibed in the next verses: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, a readiness for peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. Only someone so clothed could have continued a ministry with no visible results for more than twenty years. Only someone convinced of being called by God could have continued to shine like a taper in the darkness.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fearless Living

Today I had a very good report from my doctor, who refers to himself as "cautiously optimistic." In the next breath, he told me of his continuing concern that I would add more cancers to my cancer collection. Women with ovarian cancer are at risk for developing both colon and breast cancer. So even though today has been snowy, this meditation about a spring rain seemed a good choice.

Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in you.
Psalm 26:3

We had a good soaking rain last night. This morning at breakfast, I noticed the drops caught in the delicate needles of the yew tree, shimmering in the sunlight like stars. They had nothing to do except shine during their brief life. I knew that within an hour the sun would evaporate them, but there they were, at that moment, reminding me of my mother carefully stringing lights on the Christmas tree.
            The raindrops, so far as we know, are not conscious of their brief life and do not fret over their coming to an end. Both the scriptures and great literature remind us as humans that our lives are also short. We are prone, however, to fret over this. And fretting dims our ability to shine.
            There are so many things to be afraid of with a serious illness such as cancer. We fear the initial diagnosis, and the surgery, the chemotherapy or radiation and its likely effects. We fear for our jobs if we are still working and the possibility of our insurance company denying a request for a prescription or test. We fear the effect of the illness on our family and friends. We fear dying in pain or drugged with morphine, leaving our true work unfinished.
            But fear is a useless waste of energy, depleting whatever resources of time and energy we have. Anger can provide fuel, but fear allows our strength to dribble out uselessly. It solves nothing, offers nothing.
            The larger problem, of course, is that fear opposes faith. When I’m afraid, it’s almost impossible to say the creeds with any integrity. “I believe,” I begin, and then wonder if that’s true. How can I say I believe if I am living with fear? Fear will take over my life like a cockroach infestation, disappearing only if I turn on the light.
            Meanwhile, I want to shine each day, be fully alive and present to it, rather than trying to live in the future, which I cannot know. I want to remember that I am caught in God’s love like the raindrops in the yew branches, held for however long I am here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Life

I wrote this a year ago last fall when a cancer-friend was dying. In this new year, two women I know and care about have already died from cancer. Although this was not written with them in mind, I offer it with love for them and for all who are touched by this disease.

Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you?
Ps. 85:6 Book of Common Prayer

The bond among cancer patients forms quickly and runs deep, even though cancer may be the main common ground. To speak the insider’s shorthand of chemo treatments, ports, the metallic taste of food, baldness, and a host of other horrors, means that we have an empathetic connection that doesn’t require long years of friendship to form.
            So: one of my cancer friends is dying. She’s lasted longer than the doctors thought she would, but it’s fairly clear she will not see the new year. She will go out with autumn’s dying, a blaze of color herself.
            When I read this verse today, I thought of her and of the new life that awaits her. I know the psalmist was speaking metaphorically—the nation of Israel had been at that time as good as dead. Restore us, revive us, are the pleas. Today for the first time I wondered if “life again” might be applied to eternal life. We don’t begin our eternal life on the day of death, but on the day of birth—or perhaps before.
What awaits us we do not know. We have no firm answers, but from the graciousness of my beloved dead who come in dreams and live in my thoughts, I am convinced there is something, some form of life, perhaps not unlike this one, but better. In one dream, my father drove a yellow sports car, far different than the sober sedans he piloted when I knew him, though I’ve been told that as a younger man, he’d had a convertible. In another, my mother was walking in a white robe, a literal bathrobe, but one far more luxurious than her practical choices when alive, her wet hair in a towel, as if coming from a spa treatment, which she never had in this life.
            When I think of my friend in her renewed life, I imagine her bubbly and sparkly. If the stories about heaven are real, she will have genuine gemstones aplenty with which to make her bracelets. Perhaps a group of cancer patients will meet together and work on the jewel-studded crowns that the faithful will receive. Heaven sometimes seems a far-fetched idea, but, as a professor I once had used to say, “A God this wild, it has to be true.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Stolen Joy

Rarely do I have trouble sleeping at night. But I was angry over a work-related incident—sore vexed, I’d say, if we were still speaking in King James English. Part of the vexation was that I was in some measure to blame for what had happened, and I hate being wrong. There was no avoiding the fact that I had been foolish, and as a former boss used to say, “Stupid costs.” Nor could I sidestep the truth that I now had no choice but to accept the consequences, which didn’t seem positive.
So I tossed and turned, for the second night in a row, upsetting both cats, making as big a mess of the covers as I’d made of the situation. None of my usual methods for inducing sleep were working: I’d prayed for friends from east to west coasts, repeated prayers I’d memorized, breathed deeply, recited psalms. And still I was wide-awake, justifying myself in the dark.
I don’t know how many people have music tracks running in their heads—perhaps everyone does. Mine can play as background music, barely noticed until I deliberately turn up the volume. Last night, the track was playing over and over two pieces from Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, which we’ve been rehearsing for a performance next month. On the verbal track, I was explaining to myself why this incident was so unfair. The music track, however, was shouting Gloria in excelsis Deo and Laudamus te: “glory to God in the highest,” and “we praise thy name.” I’d try to switch the music, forcing myself to replay a section of a symphony I’d been listening to earlier that night. My subconscious would have none of it. Gloria! it sang. Laudamus te.
I gave up and let it play, deciding to concentrate my attention on the verbal segment of my problem. Blessedly, I recalled words from Marcia, a beloved wise woman at church. At a recent gathering of women she told us about a distressing incident, concluding with, “I determined they could not have my joy. That belongs to Me and God, Inc. They can have my possessions, they can in some cases even have my life, but they cannot steal my joy.” Something in her statement reminded me of Booker T. Washington saying, “I will allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”—that wonderful determination to protect one’s spirit for joy, against hatred.
I was letting a work-related problem steal my joy, no question about it. When I put it that way, it hardly seemed worth the cost. The noise in my head finally quieted. I rolled over one last time and went to sleep. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Promise of Presence

He shall call upon me and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
Psalm 91:15 Book of Common Prayer

The Bible is full of some very extravagant promises. As my faith has aged along with my body, I’ve learned not to take these as literal guarantees. Promises of long life, of healing, of moving mountains—all these I regard as just whistling in the dark, the writer hoping against hope that they were true, the way that verifiable statements such as “The sun rises in the east” are true.
            I’m not sure it matters whether or not they are literally true, and for every instance in which they appear to be, I can find two examples of where they clearly are not. Yet, faithful to my earliest training, I find it difficult not to “cling to the promises,” as we used to sing.
            Psalm 91 is one of my (many) favorite psalms. This morning when I reached verse 15, I was ensnared by the promise of presence.
            What I want—and what I think most people want—is the sense that we are not alone as we struggle with our disease and its ramifications. Those of us without spouses—or with partners so hurt and sad and scared by our illness that they have no comfort left to offer us—may feel especially vulnerable. How much can and should we burden our friends or our children? Who will accompany us to surgery, to treatment?
            Those are questions with which we may need to wrestle. Still, we can rest in the reality that God does not abandon us in trouble; God is an all-weather, all-terrain friend. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death is frightening, but it’s not a solo journey. We are not asked to be Lindbergh or the other early pilots flying alone through the night, unsure if we will survive the journey. We have company.
Some people can sense the presence of God or angels; one friend hears an audible voice. I don’t often hear God’s voice; nevertheless, I am aware of God’s being present in the actions of my friends, who begin offering help almost before I need it. Prevenient grace, the Anglican priest John Wesley termed it—the grace that goes ahead of us, getting things ready. Though we may be solitary, we are not alone. We are accompanied by one who has walked a road of anguish in a human body, one who knew fear and the hardship of a prayer that didn’t receive the hoped-for answer. We are not alone.

Friday, January 7, 2011

O Rest in the Lord

Take delight in the LORD, wait patiently for him, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Psalm 37:4

God’s sense of humor is once again at work. Because winter isn’t my best time, especially when projects are thinner than usual (leading to economic fears), I’m being sent daily reminders of what my real task might be right now: to rest in the Lord, just as the trees and flowers and creatures are resting in the January sun.
            God uses whatever means are available. Having decided a few years ago that I wanted to sing with a local symphony’s chorus badly enough to work toward an audition, I hired a voice coach. On the basis of two brief phone conversations, she chose for me an audition piece from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. The lyrics are a paraphrase of Psalm 37, one of my all-time favorite psalms. “O rest in the Lord; wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires. Commit thy way unto him and trust in him, and fret not thyself because of evildoers. Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him.”
            I began fretting as soon as I saw the song; I would need to hit a D, and I’m a typical alto, phobic about anything higher than a C above middle C. My teacher blithely ignored my concern. She considered me a mezzo-soprano, a real blow to my contralto-wannabe ego. Don’t ask me why the contralto is superior. As an upper elementary student told to sing second soprano, I must have thought the term meant second rate. Despite the glories of the Anglican “middle way” of moderation, middle soprano is not where I thought I was going.
            In any case, I was to practice daily, first warming up with scales (which both of the cats hated hearing) and trying to remember to breathe properly. And then I sang the words, so that they became the tune in my head when I listened to the interior soundtrack. Rest; fret not, not even about being a mezzo.
            I’m not much for patient waiting; nonetheless, God did give me the desires of my heart: I passed the audition and have had the joy of rehearsals of great music and performance at annual concerts. During the months of chemotherapy, the director allowed me to join rehearsals for a spring concert, even though I told him I wasn't sure I would be able to sing. I was not strong enough to perform; the effects of chemo are cumulative, and I was too weak and tired to sing or stand. But in my head were the words and music to our concert piece: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in the Ninth Symphony. Rest. Joy. What else is there?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Juniper Tree Syndrome

In I Kings 19, Elijah the prophet does something that seems out of character. Up to this point in the narrative, he’s been a wild and bold man. He’s predicted a drought that would end only when he said it would. Check. He’s gone off to live at a brook and be fed by ravens, then gone to a town where a widow fed him. Double check. He’s been a real thorn in the side of Ahab, Israel’s king, finally challenging the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel. Major check.
The prophets agree that the god who accepts the offered sacrifice by igniting it will be the true god. Baal (the god of fire) doesn’t answer, but Yahweh does. Jezebel, Ahab’s queen, is so angry she threatens Elijah with death. And this man of God, who has feared nothing, goes on the lam.
            Who can tell what will be the last straw for any of us? Worn out afer running to the capital ahead of Ahab’s chariot and then into the desert, probably dehydrated, and hungry, Elijah sits down under a juniper tree and prays to die. I love this story, the humanness of Elijah. How often I have sat down under a metaphorical juniper tree myself! Though I’ve seldom been ready to plead for death, I too have felt Elijah’s despair—everyone else is false, I am the only true prophet left, and my work doesn’t matter. I could have been doing better things with my time, my life. Woe is me!
            What’s equally instructive is God’s response to Elijah. Twice an angel shows up to provide food and water, to make sure the prophet has enough fuel to keep going. He ends up in a cave, asking once again for God to kill him, repeating the litany of his supreme uselessness. This, mind you, from a man who has just been publicly vindicated and slain hundreds of false prophets. If he is useless, what chance do I have?
            When God shows up to meet with Elijah outside the cave—Elijah caved in—he ignores all the expressed despair, offering action as an antidote. Get up, go anoint Elisha as your successor, go anoint the next king, get on with your work.
            As a high school graduate, I began working at Lawson’s, a convenience store that was the precursor to Dairy Mart. We had milk, ice cream, a deli counter, and basic groceries. My boss, Georgetta, saw at once that I was the moody type. One day she looked at my face as I came in and promptly led me to the ice cream freezers. These were low, open chests in two rows, with a center shelf running the length of the freezers. On these shelves were stacked jars of ice cream toppings, maraschino cherries, and marshmallow fluff.
            “I want you to take everything off the top, wipe it down with bleach water, dust the jars, and put them all back,” she explained.
            This directive did not improve my mood.
            I did as I was told, however, and by the end of the job, I was happy again, for no real reason, just as I suspect my bad mood had no real cause.
            Certainly there are situations that call for rest, for medication, for withdrawal for a time. Sometimes, though, overly sensitive types like Elijah and me just need to get busy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

After Cancer

Let me hear of your loving-kindness in the morning, for I put my trust in you; show me the road that I must walk, for I lift up my soul to you.
Psalm 143:8 bcp

I needed this verse more after I finished treatment than I did during the Fridays of Taxol and cisplatin. Then, I knew where I had to walk—straight to my navy recliner in the chemo room, to hours of talking with new friends who understood who I was now more than some people I’d known for many years did.
For me and for many, finishing chemo was a case of “Goodbye treatment, hello post-traumatic stress.” Treatment wasn’t any fun . . . but it did require a lot of energy and determination, and it bought us a lot of attention. Now we are whole, or reconstructed, and everyone has disappeared. Our regimen has changed, too; the calendar isn’t filled with chemo or radiation appointments or blood draw reminders. On top of that, we’ve lost the camaraderie of our nurses and our new chemo buddies. We had finally found a place to be completely real, where we could discuss anything deemed not polite conversation: baldness, constipation, mouth sores—nothing was too private. Suddenly, happily, we are told we are in remission and free for three months.
            I had a hard time with that, frankly. In some ways it was harder than adjusting to treatment, to having cancer. I had all this free time—Fridays were no longer built around trips to the hospital. I was slowly regaining strength and hair—and my friends called less often and stopped cooking for me.
            Now that I wasn’t actively in treatment, who was I? I certainly couldn’t go back to the old ways of thinking. Cancer wasn’t just having the rug pulled out from under me—someone had taken the rug and tossed it away! I knew in a stark new way that I would have to die; I’d gotten a reprieve, but I was, like everyone else, mortal.
            To create writing that reaches others, we’re told, something big has to be at stake. The high drama of surgery and treatment had ended; nothing as major was at stake now. Surviving treatment was big. Figuring out how to live now isn’t a pageturner.
            Ending treatment is a kind of grief. I’m on my own again now—not entirely, of course, but to a greater degree than I was during treatment. Flowers, calls, cards, and minestrone soup go to others in active need. Some days I struggle with survivor’s guilt—as of this writing, I’ve not experienced a recurrence of my dangerous cancer. I met women in the chemo room almost four years ago with cancer like mine who are no longer alive. I miss their wit and courage, even though I knew them only in one context, briefly.
            In many ways, I am still me. Still writing, still walking in the woods along the Little Miami River, still loving good food and conversation. In other ways, I feel both loss and lost. I need to know how to walk this Survivors’ Road. For that, for everything, I must look to God.