I’ve been in la la land for a few days and it’s been so intense and hard and beautiful. Being here, working on my book and spending my time with creative friends has been a full circle experience of light, dark, light, dark, fear, love, vulnerability, and a feeling of stepping into a giant abyss. A good friend gave me a beautiful Labradorite stone to wear around my neck yesterday. Here’s the mineral’s properties. Pretty much sums it all up.
This stone is all about magic! Don’t be fooled by its dark outer appearance, this stone holds a rainbow of brilliant hues as it catches the light. This is a great stone for assistance as you move through the darkness, the void, the unconscious, and the unknown of life. It helps illuminate the truth while protecting you as you traverse into unseen worlds. It strengthens your intuition and enhances your particular psychic abilities.
I am alone at the beach. Everyone who was supposed to come didn’t, and now I am here with the crowds and the wind and the waves. The water is rough, I observe, as I rush into it, meeting each wave with my body. I briskly swim out past the break, where kids and their parents shriek with the powerful wake of water. There is a man out where our feet don’t touch the ground and it’s rough out here. We give size each other up before turning to the horizon. I see the waves forming a few hundred feet away and there is fear mixed with determination as the white caps whip like egg whites over the curdled surface. My back is to the shore and it’s me and the ocean. I feel anger from somewhere welling in the pit of my chest.
Come on, I whisper under my breath, a taunt to the ocean, my legs working an eggbeater. The waves come, as they always have and I find solace in their rhythmic formation and violent dispersal. Never turn your back to the ocean, I remember being told after I almost drowned in San Diego when I was in my early twenties, just a couple of years after playing waterpolo in high school. I replay the sheer terror of turning around to find a big wave breaking over my head and then another one and another one, and my ex boyfriend dragging me to the shore. I developed my first fear of the ocean and its brutal force.
But this time, the waves are smaller, or maybe I am less afraid. These waves are the events over the last 3 years. Cancer, loss, sickness, betrayal. Friends who are no longer friends, self-doubt, grief, disappointment. I feel the emotions welling as I plunge under some like a seal and meet others head on, the water smacking my face and rushing up my nose. I am not sad, or angry, at least actively. I am defiant, a scrappy fighter telling the ocean that I can take it, I can take the waves and the burn of salt and even the riptide. I hear the occasional shrill of the lifeguard’s whistle, pointing at me and waving that I come in closer to shore. I look at him like a smug teenager and then wait for a wave to carry me in, pausing above the hungry undertow. I feel like a total badass now, I am manhandling the ocean! I triumphantly declare to myself, knowing that at any moment the tables could turn and I could be swallowed alive and quickly digested in the belly of the Atlantic.
Maybe that’s just it. Face the waves and you have a better chance of survival. But there are those times where I’ve been distracted, or comfortable, or tired and I’ve turned too late, to find a huge wave crashing over my head, and all I see is the back of its throat, the acid and brine of hardship. Experiencing the shit has made me accutely aware of how quickly life can change and become grueling. I know that loss and sadness is a part of human existence and I would like to think that gratitude and perspective and love can separate the bone grinding abyss of despair from grief and loss that ride on the back of love and hope. I want to face the waves, past the break where my toes only occasionally skim the sandy bottom of the dark Atlantic. Maybe that’s the secret, but I don’t really know.
My great aunt Fran called me frantically last weekend. The doctors had found a large tumor in her husband Eddy’s lung, and she was unclear on what exactly was going on. I rented a car and drove out to Jersey the next day to help her navigate his diagnosis and treatment. When I arrived, I spoke to the doctor, who was about to begin Eddy’s chemotherapy without consulting the family. Eddy has small cell lung cancer, which had metastasized to the liver. With very poor health, Eddy was estimated to have 3 months to live without chemo, maybe a year with chemotherapy, the majority of which he would receive in hospital — where he would presumably live and die in the remainder of his days.
Receiving this information, I had to tell Fran the nature of the Eddy’s prognosis. I had to call the social worker, and I had to arrange a meeting with the doctor who had zero bedside manner. I had to find the compassion that I had lacked for Eddy for so long during his life. I sat next to him in the hospital, this man who who bloated, without his dentures, track marks and bruises up and down his arms for the veins that were too weak to hold an IV. I patiently listened to him make racist comments to medical staff, yell at my aunt condescendingly, and tell longwinded stories that were or were not true. I wondered how it would feel to be dying without family or love, and to alienate every person who had ever tried to help you.
I hated Eddy for so much of my life, for his current person, and the things he had done in the past. Yet, here was this person who was a dying sack and skin and bones, facing his own mortality and the toll that his body that taken over years of abuse and emotional rot. It reminded me of my favorite episode of On Being with Brene Brown when Krista Tipett says, you know when you can see how people age — people who have never come to terms with their own shame and vulnerability? And here it was sitting before me.
I felt anger for the medical system, for the doctor operating in an American cultural context who insisted Eddy should receive chemotherapy rather than die. I felt guilty for feeling no love for this person in front of me. But I think for the first time in my life, I am beginning to learn — really learn — about the art of compassion, beyond the new agey glow of a word that hardly bears meaning anymore.
I am realizing that Eddy might never be able to leave this world in grace, and I think there are probably very few times in his life where he embodied grace. But I can find grace in this place, of telling Fran her husband of 55 years is going to die, to support Eddy’s right to choose how and when he dies. In some ways, the lack of love I feel for this man has been a passageway in understanding my comfort with death and dying, and sickness and the choices that we encounter as human beings. Compassion, I am realizing, isn’t pity or sympathy or necessarily any emotional connection at all to the dying. Rather, it is my ability to be present in the dotted boundaries between life and death. There is grace there, in acknowledging that I may not understand someone in life, but I can honor them in death, as they prepare for the journey back into the unknown.
*Photograph by Takashi Homma, 2015
The clouds tell a story of their own.
flocks as diverse as
days, years, time
where we float
as melancholic wisps of ourselves,
swelling in our own space, plumage ornate
and sculptural. Or
disappear entirely, molecules disperse
and atoms unfurl,
waiting for our next form to crystallize.
on my fire escape, northeast facing
the small fingers of romano bean vines
prod for something solid, arching mightily skyward
their tiny grips swaying to this pole and then that
to the breeze heavy with east river musk.
sometimes the poles are too rusty, too layered
with filth of hurricanes and failed harvests past
to cradle the tiny tendrils, eager to flourish
in the peak of their season.
and yet, they push on, through the shadow of buildings
toward the wings of songbirds and the spectacle of the night sky
patiently, arduously priming for their karmic goal
I couldn’t help but think of you
as I was seized by the wondrous awe of nebula intestines
shimmering lava flows of iron and helium
refracting pulsing windows of light.
I was in Brooklyn, raking dry soil and snow,
Brown and white blended into a speckled gray.
my heavy breath burned my chest with each icy inhale
of hydrogen laced air, as we laid the bricks for the fire
A valve connects us, us who like vines have managed
to push through the salinized soil up the sagging fences
to the gastric burps of the heavens where we bathe
in sulphuric showers and float like feathers over dark matter
Pushing rocks, rotted leaves, chunks of coal and other relics of fires past
Notes surfed on the rattling clang of rake on earth,
“it’s all one” it sang to me, “this world and that one”
The prism shifted. Hued dispersions of light bared themselves
over the muddled snow, clinging to my snowflakes of breath.