A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Practice Makes Better

My Spirituality and Health Care class last night started with the Loss in Death Experience. If you were following this blog in the fall, you know that I struggled with the grief that this exercise triggered then.

In the exercise, the person writes things, people and places the person loves on pieces of paper. Then the leader reads a long story about the person getting a cancer diagnosis and eventually dying. Along the way, the person loses all of those pieces of paper: home and art and spring, friends and family.

At the of my experience the first time, I felt angry and betrayed. I felt wave after wave of loss since my tumors: athleticism, hiking in the backwoods, traveling in rural lands where people eat unknown foods and speak unknown languages, a sense of my own invulnerability. For months, I felt unrooted, spinning into space like George Cloony in the movie Gravity.

Last night, I died a second time, but this time the exercise was a healing one. Practice makes better, as they say.

Repeating this experience brought to mind Emily (Dickenson, or course—we’re on a first name basis), who wrote about two of her own painful experiences of loss:

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell

Some critics postulate that these painful events were the deaths of two men in the life of this mostly cloistered poet. Others emphasize that we don’t know what the events were and that we don’t need to know. As usual, I’m pretty much with the others.

There’s no grace in this poem, no respite from the pain, no bright side. The glass is not half empty: it’s entirely empty. The poet is a victim of two losses, and may be a victim again. This is hell.

I do not experience the pain of loss in this way. My early losses (which seemed so significant at the time)— loss of confidence in middle school, quitting the high school basketball team, leaving my first love, divorcing my husband—in retrospect seem to have prepared me for what now seem like larger losses later in life from my brain tumors.

For me, there have been gifts in these losses. Like Dante and so many classical heroes, I have emerged from hell. In my earliest times of pain, I learned that I can experience a very dark time, and once I’ve survived it, I can look back and see the gifts of living through such pain: resilience, peace with taking different paths in life than I had planned, the grace of realizing that my new paths offer me love and beauty that I had not envisioned in my plans.

That’s all well and good, of course, but with death so far as we know there’s no grace of new awareness and new life. With death, we become like Keats as the nightingale sings: a clod.

So far as we know.

Some people of various religions think they know the afterlife that awaits them, and I have my own visions. We might be right that there’s a life after death, but I seriously doubt that the life looks anything like any of our visions. As Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “Death is different than anyone supposed—and luckier.” (He seemed to know this from looking at the grass.)

How do we prepare for the unknown that is death? Perhaps we can practice: maybe doing this exercise again and again, maybe recognizing the small deaths that each of us experience throughout our lives, maybe daily doing Shavasana (the yogic corpse pose).

After my car accident, when Ann ran into the trauma center, the nurse told her, “She’s lost one of her nine lives.” Ann responded that I had lost several already. It’s true: two brain tumors, neurosurgery, neuro-radiation, the swine flu, pneumonia, food allergies and the car wreck.

That’s eight lives, and it’s not counting the lives lost due to the awakening that can follow trauma: Southern Belle to Northwest Lesbian, wealthy wife to divorced school teacher, cautious child to young woman traversing a river on steel girders in a lightening storm, and the list goes on.

But each of my lives lost, though hell at the time, led from hell to transformation. I’ve lived through smaller deaths into transformations and legacies, into great love and great grace, into the belief that the unknown brings gifts that I am too small to imagine.

So last night I died again. And I’m here to tell about it. The next time, I’ll suffer again. Again it will be hell. And again there will be some gift and some beauty that I cannot now imagine. At least that’s how it seems to me today.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Art and Healing

Last night Ann I went to see Jennifer Hopper, Norbert Leo Butz, and others at the Angel Band Project at The Neptune Theatre in the University District. It was an amazing evening of music, love, joy, sadness, remembrance, and healing. 

Ann and I had read about the concert in the Seattle Times, and it may have been The Times that called Hopper the most courageous woman in Seattle. Though I often disagree with The Times, this time they got it right.

Five years ago, a man broke into Hopper's and her partner Teresa Butz's home. The attack that ensued was awful. Skip the rest of the paragraph if you'd rather not read it. Both women were repeatedly raped and stabbed until Butz threw a piece of furniture through the window, allowing Hopper to escape. Butz was murdered. 

The Angel Band Project's mission is to break the silence about sexual violence and to help survivors heal through music. Hopper is a survivor with a Broadway voice, so her performance and the heart that she brought to that performance were powerful indications of art's ability to heal.

The event was open seating, so Ann let me off at the curb to secure seats for the two of us. When I approached the entry of what used to be a movie theatre, I felt a younger and hipper vibe than usually attracts those of us in the second half-century of our lives.

The entry was dark, and the walkway somewhat uneven, so I made my way into the venue by following the crowd noises inside. First I passed by a large gated area reserved for those who were over 21 to drink alcohol during the concert. Though a beer seemed tempting, we came to hear the music, so I held on to the gate to keep my balance as I made my way to the sober rows of seats in front. 

As the venue filled, our white-haired peeps filled some of the chairs, and Ann joined me after parking half a mile away, so I felt more comfortable. Behind me, two women who had been strangers when they arrived talked about their personal connections to Jennifer Hopper: one went to high school with her and the other worked with her before "the tragedy."

Shelly Hart, who is the--what do you call her--personality at the Storm games (our beloved WNBA team), announced the evening's purpose and kept saying that "BC" was there. If you're a lesbian or any ordinary person who listens to music and lives in Seattle, you know that's the musician Brandi Carlile.

When Hopper came onto the stage (flanked by a seven member band and two back-up singers), she seemed overwhelmed by the crowd. To open the evening, she sang Shawn Colvin's "I Don't Know Why." 

For anyone who knows a piece of Hopper's story, the song's poignancy dug deep. She closed: 

I don't know why, the trees grow so tall,
And I don't know why, I don't know anything at all,
But if there were no music,
Then I would not get through.
I don't know why I know these things,
But I do.

Just as Hopper sang about the power of music in her emotional survival, she talked about music and healing later in the evening. This connection between art and healing has become my passion, my direction as I seek a new career. I'm no musician, but I do believe, as I have read, that art reaches places in us that ache, and art can help us transcend pain even as we feel it. At least that's how it's been for me. In writing this blog, for example, and in connecting with you as you read it, I am healing from the wounds of my brain tumors and a life that is not unfolding as I expected it, too, though no doubt (as the poet Max Ehrmann wrote in "Desiderata"), my life and the universe are unfolding as they should. 

A few songs later, Hopper sang a wistful arrangement of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road":

So goodbye yellow brick road,
Where the dogs of society howl.
You can't plant me in your penthouse.
I'm going back to my plough.

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad.
Oh, I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road.

Hopper sang of leaving her path as I have left mine. (Don't get me wrong: I don't compare my trauma to hers, but it's not a contest, and I'm learning and healing from her.)

There were lots of songs about angels throughout the night, which has me remembering that I learned recently from a chaplain at Children's Hospital in Seattle that children often see angels. Perhaps the most powerful song about angels is the one Hopper sang with "BC" (Brandi Carlile). Hear the refrain: 

Calling all angels, Calling all angels.
Walk me through this one, don't leave me alone.
Calling all angels, Calling all angels.
We're trying, we're hoping, but we're still not sure how…

What a voice and what a spirit. While Hopper didn't mask her pain, she also didn't wallow in it, and the evening was more one of joy than of sadness. 

Hopper sang with several others during the evening, but her most prevalent and poignant singing partner was her partner's brother, Norbert Leo Butz. (Yep, that's a mouthful, but that's his name.) They sang together a good bit, and he sang on his own sometimes. 

When he introduced one song that he would sing as a song by Amy Grant, and the crowd moaned a little, he remembered Grant when she first became a hit: "She was 15 and a Christian, and she was hot." I wish I could remember the song he sang. It was lovely and made me think that perhaps Amy Grant, like I have, has grown up some since I was in college and she shocked the Christian music world by wearing a sexy leopard jacket. 

Though Norbert Butz was talented (a two-time Tony award winner), funny, and energetic, in the background of every song he sang was his sister's death. At the close of Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go," for example, we saw the pain of his loss as he sang: 
I'm like a fish out of water,
A cat in a tree.
Well it's over - I know it - but I can't let go.
Well it's over - I know it - but I can't let go.
Well it's over - I know it - but I can't let go.

Before singing Otis Redding's song to men about how to treat a woman, he said, "We need to talk to the men, to the boys who cause such pain. We need to teach them how to treat a woman." Then he sang: 

Just try a little tenderness, ooh yeah yeah yeah
You got to, know how to love her man, take this advice, man
You've got to, squeeze her, don't tease her, never leave
You've got to, hold her and rub her softly man
Try a little tenderness, ooh yeah yeah yeah
Don't tease my baby
Love her, lord.

There was so much love and healing, so much pain and need for further healing, on that stage. And such talent. I again wished I could sing, but that 's not my art. Here, witnessing the power of art in healing was powerful. 

This morning, I was still singing last night's vibe in my head (where my music sounds best), when I read The Rattler's Alan Fox's interview with the poet Jane Hirshfield. In part of the interview, Fox says, "I’m thinking that the fear of being intimate is perhaps the fear of losing one’s individual identity." After some silence, Hirshfield replied:

I have no doubt that you’re right, and yet … To lose your individual identity is one of the most profound things a human being can do. And it’s something we seek out continually, isn’t it, whether by mind-altering substances or going to a concert. I have no question that falling out of the self is one of the deepest pleasures of music, that we enter into music in order to become it and no longer ourselves. And yet you are also right that this is terrifying to people. My maternal grandfather, who was a Rosicrucian for a while, and the only person in my family with an interest in mysticism, told me a story when I was a child. He had been given anesthesia, and as he went under, he said, his mind traveled out into the universe, into the vast blackness of the universe, until all he saw was a single point of light which he understood as the beginning of all time and all space. Now, I thought that sounded extraordinary, absolutely wonderful. For him, it was so frightening that he never consented to full anesthesia again. Every operation after that was done under only a local.

So for Hirshfield, as for me, our greatest fears--even our fears of great pain and obliteration--can lead us to new states of awareness. Though we don't seek the pains in our lives--as I didn't seek brain tumors and their losses and Hopper and her partner didn't seek the violence of that terrible night--we may transcend those pains. Perhaps we even need the pain to transcend the smallness of our lives and see our greatness. 

We don't ask for the pain--that would be masochism--but it may offer a door to a new space. And it may not. Going into that new space requires courage or at least passion for a transcendent life.

As Hirshfield said, "I really am a terrible coward, yet I have not wanted the narrow life that comes with cowardice.... Art’s example reminds us that it is possible to develop an awakened and courageous and indecorous soul, in the face of a world that mostly asks us to be obedient sheep.…

“I’ve always wanted to discover. It is the only thing I’ve wanted. Everything else in my life stems from that. What is this life, this moment, and how fully can I know it? And the interesting thing is that if you pursue those questions, astonishments step forward, and you find things that you never would have guessed were there to be found. I think this is true for any inch of ground, looked at with the mind of open awareness."

And perhaps of everyday language of concrete this and that and small thoughts isn't big enough to help us hear what poetry and music can help us hear: love and peace have a power that is bigger than we are, bigger than our language is, as big as God. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Two or Three

Although my little church has only a couple of hundred members and there are 42,094 students at the University of Washington, it seems that whenever I go to a social justice event at the university, where I am in graduate school, I see someone I met at church. 

I have attended multiple lectures on addiction, and Kirsten, who was a child in the church when Ann and I first started going there, is always there. Sometimes she's leading. Last time we went to an addiction lecture, Graham, another person who was a child when I met him, was there. Graham and I went to El Salvador on delegations from our church, and he once saved me from an angry scorpion. 

Then a couple of weeks ago I met with a small team of people at the University's D-Center. (D is cool for Disability). A student working on an event joined us, and this student was Tash, who was also a child in the church when Ann and I started going there. 

And just the other day, Diana, who is a professor focused on the feminization of poverty, walked by in the hallway. Diana and I participate in a study group at the church on Race and Spirituality.

People I know from church are also showing up in my textbooks. Vicky, who was the executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, was in a book on trauma because the work that the agency did was so tough. Vicky and I went to El Salvador together as part of our church's first delegation to Guarjila, our sister parish. And Jeri, who plays the harp and led some of the church's work with people with AIDS, was in a chapter about the arts and healing, my newest interest.

Though this little church isn't in our neighborhood, we started going there because in another life Ann had spontaneously joined a hoedown in the church basement where men were dancing with men and women with women and nobody seemed to mind, which was more unusual in the 1980s than it is now. When we first attended a church service twenty years ago, we were welcomed and loved as a couple in this church before being gay was fashionable. 

Our little church brings to mind the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead's comment: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

That's partly another way of saying what the King James version of the Bible records that Christ said: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). I was thinking they were the same thing, but I’m learning that there is more to faith than doing good works.

After twenty years, this little church continues to be a great place for Ann and me. We've been especially involved with our church's relationship with the rural Salvadoran town Guarjila and with a relatively new study group focused on Race and Spirituality, so we've grown with the church's social justice work. But we also grow in the community's love. 

During my brain tumors, members of this community held us in their hearts, their arms, and their prayers. At my recent fiftieth birthday party, church members packed the house. Last week, in her sermon about Jesus raising Lazarus, our minister Karla made the promise of forgiveness real for me, and she didn't even know my situation. I suppose she touched me because she talked about a human condition: the condition of missed moments and regret.

Before this Sunday, I have always felt that Jesus had an unfair advantage over typical human regret in the Lazarus story, and that the story does not speak to me. In this story, Jesus gets to the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus too late to save Lazarus, who has now been dead for four days and, as King James says, "stinketh." Mary and Martha believe that Jesus could have saved their brother, so they are angry that he came so late. Jesus rolls aside the stone to Lazarus's tomb and calls Lazarus, no longer dead, back into life. 

Does Jesus have to say he's sorry and feel regret that he let them down? No. That has in the past made me feel that Jesus used his divine advantage so that he didn't have to feel guilty, an option that I—who do not have a divine advantage—do not have. Jesus is usually living life in the way I want to live it, so I have found his escape from my regret irritating. However, Sunday our pastor Karla read the passage in a different way: Jesus is showing us that we have second chances, that we are forgiven for the times when we come too late.

The forgiveness that Karla sees in this story forgives me for regrets that seldom come to my consciousness. A decade or so before my brain tumors, in the years before death seemed like a natural part of life, my dear friend Rick called me from Texas soon after his visit to Seattle. I thought he was calling to tell me that he had made it safely home. (He was a quadriplegic and had flown his own plane.) I was busy and did not immediately return the call, and before I called him back I got a message that he had died of a cancer discovered when he spilled hot coffee on himself in an airport on the way home. 

Also, after my brain tumors, when I should have known better, a young woman who had been a student teacher in my classroom and who I knew had leukemia, called and—again busy and tired—I postponed returning her call, and she had died by the time I called. Again, I was too late. 

Usually, I do not think about these mistakes, but sometimes, I struggle with them. For example, I found this writing from a time this fall when I struggled with these mistakes: 

This morning, music was back in my mind. “Forgive me,” I sang in Tracy Chapman’s voice again and again. (In my mind I can sing like Tracy Chapman.) Though some days, I don’t know why I’m singing a particular song, this morning I knew.

In my mind, I changed the verse to fit my current train of thoughts, and the rest of the song doesn’t apply, so here’s how I sang it:

Forgive me.
That’s all that I can say.
Years gone by and still,
Words don't come easily,
Like forgive me.
Forgive me.

In my mind, I sang it deeply and plaintively (and right on key), like Tracy.  (By the way, I know the convention is to use an artist’s last name, but for some artists I feel a kinship that causes me to use their first names. This is true for artists like Tracy and Emily—Dickinson, of course, who also knew about pain: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.” How can I say it better than Emily?)

Forgive me. Forgive me.

For a long while I could not sleep, but somewhere in the middle of the night, my resting place gave way, and I fell again, a slow falling, like a ship sinking in deep water, falling into my world where I need to find my own forgiveness.

This search for forgiveness seems to connect with some of my recent wonderings. I have been thinking lately about why I connect so much to people who are in pain. Since my tumors, that’s generally been people who have been hurt by diseases, but there are other reasons for such pain as well. There are so many in my church and other parts of my life who are in pain.

In church there are healers, too. I am especially grateful for Robbie, who steps up as the church doctor when we need someone. Though Robbie and I don’t connect often, I will not forget the time when she approached me after my diagnosis but before my surgery…or maybe it was with my second diagnosis. She hugged me and said, “We’re not ready to let you go. We’re with you through this.” Of course, Robbie had been Polly’s doctor—Polly, our minister’s wife about 15 years ago, died after a long struggle with breast cancer—and we both knew that Robbie had no medical power over my tumor, but her reassurance that I was part of the heart of this community was a reassurance I didn’t even know I needed.

I am learning that two or three can gather for more than a meeting or a rally. We can gather to love and care for one another, as perhaps God has put us together in this world to do.

So we too (two?), you and I, gather on this page to care for one another just as we will go away from this page to make the world a better place for all of the twos and threes who gather here.

And so I continue to feel humbled by all there is to learn, and by so much grace in the world. And instead of feeling formal, like Emily, I'm feeling softer. Day by day. And now I'm singing a different tune, this one from Godspell, sung most recently to me (and a gazillion others) by The Seattle Men's Chorus:

Day by day. Day by day.
Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Winged Words

When my nephew Willie was a bit younger, he lost his “favorite quarter,” a Canadian quarter, and he was quite upset about it, so Ann and I sent him a new Canadian quarter. Sister Jen said that when he opened his gift, he immediately sought for pen and paper, and—unprodded by his mother—wrote a heart-felt thank you note. It may have been the first thank you note we received from our nieces and nephews. When we opened the note, we read, “Thank you for sending me what I really wanted.”

Friends and family gave me what I really wanted for my fiftieth birthday: poems and quotations to go in my new “Winged Words” mailbox, which my friend Karen painted with butterflies and a heron (other winged beings.)

For days, I have read and re-read, organized and re-organized, these gifts. My crafty friend Ellen is helping me display them in glittery books.  Among the poems, I have noticed patterns. The most often celebrated poets, for example, are the contemporary poets Mary Oliver and Billy Collins and the 13th century Persian mystical poet Rumi. Though I received hundreds of poems and quotations, I did not receive the same poem or quotation from any two well-wishers. This suggests to me that there are so many lovely poems yet to be discovered in this world. What a joyful, amazing thought.

I love pouring over these gifts (yes, I am truly a geek) from a wide range of times and traditions. Today as I was re-reading Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” (the first poem that Little Brother Matt and I shared), I noticed Dr. Seuss’s poem from my friend Victoria, and I noticed how the kernel of their messages was so similar though the styles are quite different. See what you think:

Dr. Seuss wrote:
Today you are
You, this is truer than true.
There is no one alive
Who is Youer than You.

And in “The Journey”, Mary Oliver wrote

But little by little,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do --

determined to save

the only life you could save.

And there’s even an Oscar Wilde quotation from my friends John and Jerry that echoes the same theme: “Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.”

All three call us to be our essential selves, and isn’t it funny that we should need the wisest ones among us to tell us what it seems we might already have known. And yet, clearly we need reminding, or even just telling in the first place. Maybe the poet Wordworth was right in his poem “Intimations of Immortality” (and elsewhere) when he wrote that he was his truest self as a child but lost that self (and that child’s appreciation for the natural world) as the world’s veil covered both his inward and his outward eye.

How long I attempted to be the person I thought I should be, looking among the adults around me to get a picture to copy: thin beauty and smart suburban mom married happily-ever-after (or even not so happily) to the industrious and smart (and wealthy) man of someone’s dreams—not mine, but it took me a long time to even realize that.

So winged words from Mary O (as I affectionately call her), Dr. Seuss (I wonder where he got his doctorate) and Oscar Wilde (the Irish always get it right) seem like the right words to celebrate in my fiftieth year, as I celebrate the wisdom of some years and hope for more years to come.

Fifty is going to be a great decade! And for my fifties, I am going to me. Perhaps I'll be me-er than me. (Look out, world!)