Thanks Giving in Buffalo Wallow

Of course, I’m not really in Buffalo Wallow, which must be somewhere in flatland. I’m up here on a pine mountain in the ancient land of the Chumash, who regarded it as the center of the world. Apparently, a Chumash trickster spirit, Coyote, or whatever he calls himself has been toying with us, so my gratitude this day is a little skewed.

I am grateful that Ikea’s designated delivery company finally delivered the bed. I bought it on Oct 23 by phone while I was still in Canada. I was told the first delivery date possible on this remote mountain in California was Nov. 8. This remote mountain is 40 minutes up the I-5 from the Ikea distribution center in El Tejon. While I slept on a mattress on the floor, my bed sped past me down the I-5 and came to rest in a warehouse south of Los Angeles, where it sat in a tight roll and disassembled pieces. Meanwhile my 82-year-pld body lay in a tight roll trying not to disassemble in agony. I missed the delivery date – they had been phoning my Canadian landline, but I am grateful that they delivered it on Veterans Day. I am also grateful that my daughter’s good-man-good assembled it with only minimum  damage to his body. So he says. I try to believe him.

It is 10 days later, my body is beginning to unwind.

Meanwhile, Mr Coyote’s trick involved a whole raft of medical specialists – general surgeons, radiologists, ear, nose and throat fellows, urologists, neurosurgeons, pain specialists, and a raft of CT scans, x-rays, MRIs, blood tests, cell cultures and biopsies. The diagnosis was kidney cancer, then metastatic kidney cancer, then benign tumor and early stage kidney cancer, then two benign tumors, one kidney, with a dissenting vote from the radiologist, who’s still got his money on the big C.

Update: a neurosurgeon has removed one tumor and it seems as though years of sciatic pain and months of insomnia have been cured. So thank you, Dr. Liker and all those friendly nurses at Henry Mayo.

Next stop, the urologist.

 

 

 

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The Crying Chair

This is the crying chair. It sits in my entrance way on a tiled floor. Good rocking there and tissues at the ready.

I saw it first at Christmas 1960 when I dragged my extremely pregnant body upstairs to my mother-in-law’s attic. She was storing it for a friend, but I could have it to rock the baby, temporary loan.

It was cream colored then. At some point, my husband painted it antique green. (When was the era of antiquing?) During a desperate teachers’ strike, our house became the place for coffee break. Deep winter. Constant arguing. Months of poverty. My two children unschooled as well, of course. To avoid insanity, I carried it down to the basement and stripped the paint off and oiled it. I loved the chair. It saved me.

I rocked my large self in it through most of a dark January 1961. When she arrived, my daughter, like her mother before her, cried. If she had cried for Canada, she would have won the gold. My father slept with his foot out of bed rocking my cradle. I rocked her in the big, comfortable chair.

Her brother arrived a year later. By then his sister was noshing on pureed food, so her colic had cleared up. Anyway her real live doll-brother made her so happy, she didn’t need to cry. He, in turn, was fascinated by her -his own non-stop performance artist/teacher, and calm by nature. Still I rocked them both before bed and at teething time, one on each knee, singing every song I knew including ‘House of the Rising Sun”

Some nights, however, I cried as I sang. Their father taught day school, night school, took night courses and tutored on Sunday. We had dinner together. That was it. A quiet, tasteful time, full of conversation. No. Two babies who needed to be fed while Daddy tried to sort out the evening lesson plan.

I had studied English & Philosophy and Drama. I was the only female survival in the Logic class by third year. I had two years of teaching English under my belt as well as teacher training. I had subdued 50 hormone-ridden grade 10s in a classroom with 48 seats. Now I was washing six dozen cloth diapers twice a week.

I started reciting Shakespeare as I bathed the kids together in the big tub.

Eventually, my husband intervened. “What would you do right now, if you could do anything?” he asked. “Put on my navy suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. “Cedarbrae Collegiate,” I replied. “You want to go back to teaching,” he said.

How could I? It was 1963. My job was to nurture these priceless babies. It just wasn’t done. But before we got up from the grey card table that functioned as our dining surface, we had the plans underway. We would hire a nanna, carefully vetted. I would get a job easily. Populations were booming and my clever husband could stop working all the time. My terror and relief could be soothed only by more rocking those bigger and bigger babies.

The rocking chair went with us to a new house. We were now making almost $12,000 together. It was an ideal place for growing children, a hill, with a flagpole and a martin house, wilderness, gardens, fences and eventually a pool. There were parks galore and a very high cliff above Lake Ontario for risking young lives. Not that we worried. They had bicycles. They had each other.

The rocking chair sat in the corner of the rec room beside the sliding door and in front of the fireplace, which any of the four of us could choose to light. Nanna kept it swept free of ashes.

Then the crying chair came back into its own. I was the one in it. It was 2 a.m., where was my husband?

The chair and I set out on our travels. Sans the others. We moved to Heyworth Ave., to Main St., to Fishleigh Dr., to the town of Zephyr, to Mississauga, to Evans Ave., to Stephen Dr. and back to Mississauga. I can picture where my chair sat in each of these places. All except 3 had my name on the deed. One had my sister’s and two I signed leases for. A good deal of rocking and crying went on in those 40 years.

Meanwhile my ex-husband had lost his much younger wife to cancer. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer the same year, 2010. We welcomed him back into the family at Easter 2012. (“Should of stuck with the old girls,” my sister greeted him cheerily.

He and I had lunch last week. A two hour lunch tires out this 82-yr-old retired teacher, but he seemed to want to come to my 14th floor suburban apartment. We did have to talk over a few details concerning his estate. There have been no bad tests recently but…

I pointed out the crying chair. This sent him into a reflective mood. He always cried easily-just maybe not over me. Intimations of mortality can bring that on. He regretted our son had not continued his painting and sculpting. I thought that a youthful art career is like a teen-aged rock band. Most people grow out of it.

Hubby, for example had chosen math and physics, over art. Even got to work with a nuclear reactor. (Is that significant?)

Anyway, grief is always the same, not so much about loss as the f-ups that we regret.

So the chair waits invitingly, inevitably.

Feel free to drop by and cry until you’re done.

 

 

 

The Cure for Fear

Okay, I should be asleep. I need to be. I want to get up early. Things to do. May actually be getting something, (When am I not?) But I have this great opportunity, which I am going to lose tomorrow. I am uncertain and afraid. Tomorrow I will call my oncologist. If my appointment is moved forward to next week instead of the week after, I know the lump that we’ve detected needs further study.

Blake and I were sitting in Starbucks in the lobby of Toronto General, gazing back at the Art Deco facade of Princess Margaret Hospital from which we had just jaywalked.

“Even if I do get an immediate call-back it could still be A or B. That would have to be determined,” I say.

“Or it could be C,” Blake quips.

“Oh, it could very well be C,” and I have to laugh.

Yes, well,  we have just spent two hours waiting to hear Blake’s test results with regard to C. They weren’t bad, but then they weren’t good either. It’s the usual seesaw game of prostrate cancer. Knock down the PSA score and the testosterone with hormones. Ease off. Watch the PSA rise again. Today, it was decided that it was time to go back to the heavy ammunition. Not easy news for the manly Blake, but excellent news in that the drugs have improved since last time and he is line to get this extremely expensive medication for free.

Not many men in the clinic bring along their ex-wives probably, but Blake’s young second wife was carried off by cancer two years ago. So he and I are embarked on this mutual study of mortality.

Much else has been happening this week. My brother Rob underwent knee replacement in Brussels. My daughter and her husband declared bankruptcy and their home is about to be foreclosed on. True this “disaster” has opened up their lives and led them to a prospective mountain home. My grandson, Leo, who has to get his driver’s license or lose his job, has his own test redo to deal with. I had enough fear to go round.

So I kept up my mantra, “I love you and I trust you.” Initially, I just mouthed the words, but gradually I realized what they meant. Driving down to the hospital today, I found it had morphed into, “I love you. I know you are pure love. I trust love.”

Blake and I, out of nothing but pure love, created a home, two children and careers that supported us. An excellent foundation for this present project.

At home, afterward, I read Rumi’s poetry (Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks). One section is called “Tavern Madness” and the poems in it are about the ‘drunkenness’ of the overwhelming contact with the divine. Dinners in our home were full of such non-alcoholic ‘drunken’ conversations, full of revelation and confidence in our vision of life.

Rumi says: I didn’t come here of my own accord
                  And I can’t leave that way.
                  Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

I love the way, poetry lets you work things out for yourself. And I love the idea of surrender to the steady shoulder that is capable of supporting my staggering self.

In another poem, Rumi says, I am the clear consciousness core of your being,                                              The same in ecstasy
                                             As in self-hating fatigue.

And so, I came around to an open heart and fear dissolved.

Mortality and Christopher Hitchens

In his recently released book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens tells the story of how British journalist John Diamond chronicled his battle with cancer in a weekly column. Hitchens confesses like many other readers, he quietly urged him on from week to week. He says,

But after a year and more…well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, 
miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No neither of those would work as endings.
Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this?- a stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end.
Hitchens’ own story was more elegantly structured. He told it in 7 essays published in Vanity Fair and now collected posthumously in this small book.

Mortality describes his initial collapse in a New York City hotel room during a tour in support of his latest book, Hitch 22, in early June 2010, saying of the emergency responders:

I had time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much backup equipment, but now I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle but firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.

He dislikes the use of the metaphor of battle, fight or struggle to describe what ensued after he was diagnosed with metastatic oesophageal cancer. He says

Myself I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of being a gravely endangered patient.

But sitting “while a venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.” And yet his dispatches from the Land of Malady are full of his customary wit and irony. His wife, Carol Blue, reports in the book’s Afterward that he wrote the jottings now collected as chapter 8 in bursts of energy and enthusiasm, his computer perched on the food tray of his hospital bed. He continued to hold court whenever he was hospitalized, “making a point or hitting a punchline for his “guests”, whom he treated like “participants in his Socratic discourses”. He had always been a great raconteur, as well as a bon vivant. He had an encyclopedic knowledge and a rapier-like intelligence. And he could hold his liquor. After an 8 hour dinner, he would rise to toast the assembled motley crowd with “a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry, limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause and jokes. ‘How good it is to be us’, he would say in his perfect voice.”

I started reading him in Vanity Fair, after many years of avoiding his work and like many others, I was immediately won over. I avoided him because he had betrayed me. For many years he had espoused causes dear to my heart, workers’ rights among them, what might be called leftwing views, but then after 9/11, he made a sharp turn right and supported the war in Iraq, believing the now disproved weapons-of-mass-destruction premise. Not to mention, he dissed Mother Teresa and rounded on Salman Rushdie, when Rushdie, under fatwa pressure, published “Why I have Embraced Islam”. I read the rebuttals that his friend Martin Amis wrote and imagined, in my innocence, that Amis was actually alienated from Hitchens. I was wrong. Amis remained his great friend, Rushdie was at Hitchens’ memorial and Mother Teresa – well that goes without saying.

Hitchens was a famous atheist, author of god is Not Great, and on his last Thanksgiving Day in November 2011, he was in my town, Toronto, debating his point of view with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Hitchens arranged Thanksgiving dinner for his family and friends here and by all accounts carried the day in the debate.

His reaction to the Christopher Hitchens Day of prayer on September 20, 2011 involved wondering exactly what was being prayed for – his survival, his redemption? He examined the nature of prayer -the importuning of an omnipotent being to suspend His laws of nature for personal benefit- and found the practice specious. He noted that certain religious zealots had pronounced that his illness was God’s punishment and in short order analyzed the ill-logic and cruelty of that by citing blameless children suffering from cancer. He said there would be no deathbed conversion and told of Voltaire being badgered as he was dying to renounce the devil, whereupon the great thinker replied, “that this was no time to be making enemies”.

The best gift that Hitchens gave me, besides many good laughs, was the realization that I can listen to a point of view I don’t agree with, indeed that I might find contrary and wrongheaded although, of course, he said much that I found true.

He concluded an essay on The Great Gatsby by saying, “It remains ‘the great’ because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism and finds the defeat unbearable and then turns to face the defeat unflinchingly”.  He died on December 15, 2011 at the age of 62. HIs unflinching voice goes on.

108 Moves in the Right Direction: tai chi or NOT

The Tao Te Ching begins by telling us that the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. That is true of many things, your love for your spouse or children, for example. Try putting that into words. And it is certainly true of tai chi.

Anthony left a request on my book Never Tell‘s Facebook page asking me to write about tai chi. I replied I would think about it. I have done, for several weeks and I still don’t know where to begin. So I’ve stolen the motto of an international tai chi organization and I’ll see what I can do.

If you follow my blog, you know I am ancient of days. (not The Ancient of Days note. That’s another dude, who, presumably is a tai chi master Himself.) But, TA DA, drum roll please, I can stand on one leg and luffa the other foot, I can lie down on the floor and get back up with no help, (shut up chair), I can get out of the car without lifting the outside leg with my hands and so much more. I have survived 2 malignancies, one for 13 years and the other, completely different one, for 10. So much for the score sheet.

It is also true that I am one of those lucky people who are earning their wings through suffering. My body thinks it’s amusing to be in one kind of discomfort or the other all the time. It scrolls through a punishing list of pains and aches on a regular basis: bowel spasm, back spasm, leg spasm, indigestion, dizziness, feeling faint, feeling faint while sleeping (!), fatigue, exhaustion and, my personal favourite, diaphragm spasm and weakness.

Now Body’s objecting that much of this is caused by me or Mind that keeps shoving stuff down into flesh and muscle and organ and bone INSTEAD OF PROCESSING IT IN A MENTALLY HEALTHY WAY. OK, stop shouting. I hear you.

And so I do tai chi.

I started 20 years ago, but I began serious study only 15 years ago. As late as 10 years ago as I was recovering from major surgery in So Cal, I still couldn’t do the whole set up in Kenneth Hahn park without a plastic-covered cheat-sheet on the picnic table. When I was more or less better and back in TO, I started going to class more often and ended up instructing beginners for 8 years.

Listen, you don’t want to start tai chi. It’ll take over your life. You’ll get addicted to all those endorphins. You muscles will ache at first and you’ll have to consult your teacher about whether you need to correct something to stop it. You’ll be in trouble at home for being out so much. Just when you think you’ve got it, your teacher will let you know you haven’t. Then you’ll feel as if you can’t do it at all. There is absolutely no end to it. I’ve heard people say it will take several lifetimes just to get one move at the end, call it “Turn to Sweep Lotus” down pat. Face it -there is no “down pat”. There is no perfection. Never. You can go on learning forever.

OMG, you actually like that last idea!

Well, you wouldn’t like that feeling of calm that settles on you during the set, once you have  learned it enough to follow. You wouldn’t like the group energy that gets going when you follow each other well. You’re an individual aren’t you? You’re a North ‘Merican if not actually an ‘Merican. (No apology needed Ozzies as you know. You’re even more so. And that 1 German viewer same diff.) You don’t want some tai chi master correcting you. Good grief, all the instructors in my club are volunteers and we are supposed to maintain our own club building and run the damn place. “This is not an exercise club”, we are told. Charitable works, open hearts! Come on!

Of course, you may be able to find a tai chi club that espouses closed hearts, uncharitable works, etc. Good luck! Your club may just charge you a high fee and let you go your own way.

I have to confess that last Saturday, at the good old volunteer-based tai chi club, when 7 of us foregathered in a work party to lift and drill and clean and eat a delicious lunch that an  someone had brought unbidden, then I was carried back to my childhood and the church hall with the women setting out the chicken pie supper. I loved that group co-operation and getting things done.

Doing a tai chi set later, a group of 6 just like doing it in a group of 35 or on occasion in a group of 700, has that same feeling, many-fold.

I hesitate to recommend tai chi to you. It’s a serious decision. You’ll be frustrated at first. You don’t want that. You may hurt sometimes. You’ll never actually know whether it’s the tai chi that making you limber and strong and keeping you alive. And all that peace that comes of a moving meditation, how’s that going to jack you up?

Better not.