I thought it was The Onion

When I saw this picture, it felt unreal. It felt surreal. It felt impossible. This picture popped up all over Facebook on the one year

10383718_10152714513382708_868238968349762656_oanniversary of my very first lumpectomy, the lumpectomy that was for a lump that had only a teeny, tiny, itty bitty, percent chance of being cancer. Ha. This picture doesn’t even seem real. It seems like The Onion. Doesn’t it seem just totally impossible? I think the critique of pinktober, of breast cancer pink, of the horrible capitalist monopoly surrounding breast cancer is pretty accessible, totally public, and mostly part of general knowledge. Like you’re a person in the world, you’ve probably heard the critiques. If you haven’t, please start here, and don’t stop reading until you’ve also watched Pink Ribbons Inc. And then commiserate with me about how insanely ridiculous it is for Komen to partner with a freaking FRACKING company. I mean come on, next to pink capitalist crap, fracking is another major issue that’s gotten a ton of publicity lately and that is basically embodies the evil of all capitalist humanity. It is surreal, unreal, unbelievable, impossible.

You know what else is surreal, unreal, unbelievable, and impossible? You know what else belongs on The Onion, not on my body? This fake, no-feeling, rigid excuse they call a fake breast that people herald for it’s perkiness and perfectness. A few weeks ago, some folks from Callanish helped the Art Therapist Who Presides Over Feathers and Sand and Acrylics make me a new breast cast, one that captured this thing on my chest, as it is now. And today I stared at the sculpture that had been sitting behind a dark blue curtain, waiting for me. I looked it straight at it, that replica of my chest in paper machet, and was stunned into total disbelief. Only for a moment, I could recognize my own body as actually having been through cancer. I could only barely believe it for a second. For one second, I could actually believe I had cancer, I could I actually know my body was forever and totally changed. It felt real and impossible, like I was seeing double, like my body was a mirage from the inside out, like I couldn’t fit into myself. They’re connected though, the old breast and the new one. The old breast is off in the land for breasts who died too soon, with all the other mastectomied breasts. But my heart is still pumping blood through the skin. And maybe there’s a connection. Maybe in the mirage, the double vision, the not-fitting, maybe they can talk to each other, be together, become together. Maybe the body accepts and loves the space that once was, the space that kept the cancer inside and away from the rest of my body, the space that sacraficed itself so I could be well. Maybe. It feels weird, but maybe a little less like it could be in The Onion.

And then I went to Blenz Coffee, and they served me a latte in the most awful hot pink cup with a horrible hot pink top and I lost my coffee craving. Another young adult with another kind of cancer recently told me that they felt jealous breast cancer got so much attention. But you know what’s weird about that attention? It’s intensely focused on making my actual breast cancer experience, you know, the experience I had while I had breast cancer, totally invisible. There’s signs all over about a “future without breast cancer,” which is great and all, but the only outcry about fracking funding cancer research is on facebook. It’s so ironic. And then of course, there’s the endless signage about how to avoid breast cancer, passed out on hot pink notecards at the grocery store and hanging around tin cans collecting change at the bank, signage that imagined I am not there. Signage that clearly states instructions for not getting breast cancer: lift weights, eat salad, don’t get wasted every night, stay skinny. Signage that says nothing about fracking. Signage that totally denies my body, denies my experience, denies that I did all those things and still got cancer, denies that I even exist. Signage that speaks to everyone else but those of us afflicted with breast cancer, during breast cancer month. Signage that looks right past me. Signage that makes me invisible. And signage that writes me out of reality, writes some warped version of history without my story, writes a world that has amnesia, a writes a world in which there are fracking drills for breast cancer even though fracking causes breast cancer. And that is why I hate all this pink stuff so much. Sure, it’s political. But it’s also horrendous and so unnerving to walk through the world during a month dedicated to the illness that invaded my body and feel so totally and completely invisible, impossible, and ignored by the “awareness” celebration for the illness that invaded my body. I am both everything and nothing, in relation to the breast cancer awareness month. It’s f*cked.

Breast cancer “awareness” is f*cked. We need a cure: we ALREADY ARE aware. We need people to know what it feels like to be in two bodies, to be disenchanted with the way your body takes shape, to wonder what if. We need people to see double, to feel triple, to move big. Tonight one of my besties A photo-3dropped by on her bike. She peed, and she asked what I had written on the mirror in lipstick. She asked if it said I AM OK. I was taken aback. It was merely a reminder to take my tamoxifen, and I’d scribbled TAMOX on the mirror behind which I keep my face cream and toothpaste. But things are not always as they seem. There’s always a double meaning. Pink ribbons make me- a breast cancer survivor/patient/something- feel invisible. Breasts beneath shirts may be merely plastic ridges filled with saline. TAMOX might actually mean I AM OK. And TAMOX meaning I AM OK might be really hopeful. Can you see it? Can you see how it could mean either TAMOX or I AM OK? Sometimes, nothing is as it seems. That is today, that is tonight, that is Pinktober, that is cancer.The breast isn’t as it seems, the cancer isn’t as it ever seemed, the casts are not as I see them in my mind, the lipstick doesn’t read to her as it does to me. That is today, that is tonight, that is Pinktober, that is cancer. I love that she didn’t see TAMOX. I love that she saw I AM OK.

You know what feels really good, like f*ck you pink everywhere, f*ck you fracking, f*ck you people who write me out of public discourse, f*ck you cancer? The song. Kate’s song. On repeat. Adnauseum. All the time. So that’s why I can’t hear the phone or the doorbell or the FB ping you sent. I’ll give you a free preview. The chorus goes: Cause they took my left tit away/Like they didn’t even give a shit/And I’m on the brink of a fit of rage/Because all I’m surrounded with is breast cancer pink. When the world doesn’t have what’s good enough for us, sometimes we have to make it. Or our friends do. We have to make the music that will heal our souls and tell the stories that no one else is telling. Because clearly, we do exist. Brightly, wildly, we exist.

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On Being Read

I’ll begin by saying that I know I’ve written about Callanish often lately, most recently about Kathy’s all-too-soon parting with the earthly world. It’s only because they’ve made such a wild, and surprising difference for me. But tonight, I attended an event marking the turn of seasons, the equinox that happened today at 7:29 pm PST. When I walked into Callanish tonight, I was greeted by the most stunning of bouquets, a bouquet filled with orange and purple and red and deep jewel tones, a bouquet capable of taking my breath away, a bouquet in utter and total stunning beauty. And so went the evening of counsel: beautiful, breath-taking, heart-open, full. People remembered Kathy, and they shared their desire for a hopeful future, and they let us into their complete heartbreak surrounding her death, and they sang songs and trusted and listened and ate cookies.

Urged by J The Wise, the woman at the helm of Callanish, I tried to listen entirely, I tried to hang onto each word, I tried not to think about whether I would talk (no, I had already decided) and I tried to savour each word, each chord, each feeling, each tear, each nervous laughter, each moment of silence, each hand reaching into mine, each line of wisdom shared.

I did speak after all, and more than one person asked me, afterwards, if I was “the Chelsey that wrote the blog.” I was. indeed. How interesting to be told by others how much my tiny little corner of networked media means to them, how profound for so many people to tell me that my brief words about a woman I only knew to be great meant so much to them.

I almost didn’t know what to say. I giggled nervously. I thanked them for reading. It wasn’t until I was on my way out the door that I finally worked up the courage to say how I really felt- When  The Callanish Doc In Residence told me she read/watched again and again, I told the The Callanish Doc In Residence how honoured I was that something I wrote could touch her so much she cried. And it is true. It is so heartening to know that the writing that helped me to process news that shook me to the core- news that came with a sadness that surprised me- could also help someone else, could also be meaningful to someone else, could also touch someone else.

I think it is the quality of listening, the quality of hanging on words and ideas and emotions, the quality of being so present that nothing else exists, that is so precious and hopeful, this quality that draws us together, demands we be together even, in community.

Some people- OK, lots of people- would say this quality of listening is outside of technology, a quality of listening that manifests in circles without cellphones,a quality of listening achieved in community counsel circles with stunning bouquets and iPhones silenced (but still buzzing- I heard them). I beg to differ. As always, I love a good theoretical debate. But tonight, I’ve also got an emotional, embodied experience that makes me shake my head at claim that this quality of listening has something to do with/out technology.

Because you see, you’ve all given it to me. You’ve shown me that in this very digital space, there is a quality of listening to be had that is deep and profound. You’ve shown me I can be heard. You’ve shown me you listen (and I do know how many, many of you read this blog daily, and I am touched. I won’t pretend I don’t check the stats like, always. I love seeing the countries this blog makes it to!) and you’ve shown me you value these words, through your sheer consistency, and tonight, through your words and kind, kind, comments.

I am humbled. Humbled to be read, to be understood with a quality of listening that is rare and deep. Humbled that you read these words, because truth be told, I’m much more articulate in writing than I can ever be between silly laughs and awkward pauses in my speech.

And so I thank you. Thank you for listening. Thank you for continuing to listen. Sometimes I wonder if my “readership” will go down now that I’m cancer-free (or something- Dr. G never calls it that, but she does speak of hoping I’m “cured”) but amazingly,  you continue to read. How grateful I am to you, how generous of you to allow me this space to share what I know and what I wonder and mostly, what I don’t know; how kind of you to read with such attention, to comment with such open hearts, to love wholly and without expectations. How profound to experience a quality of listening so whole, so heartful, so wide that it jumps across the globe. It is amazing to imagine my community, my community reading my posts- and to know that my imagined community is so impactful it consistently, coherently, and relentlessly, in a hundred wild ways, makes material impact on the world.

Tonight, I am humbled. Because you listen with a quality I never anticipated, because this space has come to mean so very much to me, because I am certain I wouldn’t have gotten through the cancer without you reading this blog, because storytelling is part of who we are as humans, because you care, I am humbled.

loving kindness, my tenderhearts: before and after

Before I had cancer, I never said things like “loving kindness” and “tender-hearted,” unless, maybe, I was talking about orphaned bottle feeding kittens. I mean I fancy myself a good facilitator, one who opens spaces for young people to participate in social justice initiatives and media programs in risky, empowering, hopeful, terrifying, bold ways— but mostly, I fancy myself the facilitator. I like to be part of- ok, in charge of- moving and shaking initiatives, feminist power-house communities, youth organizers, creative media-makers.  So I might have told my youth to be gentle with each other, to tread carefully around the stories they shared with each other about social justice, to witness each others’ stories and the group process— but I wasn’t really one to get all up in the witness-y/tread gently/tender-hearted discourse around my own experiences of the world. I mean hey, I go to yoga, I eat good food, I bottle feed kittens and write about gender, media, and civic engagement. Isn’t that enough tender-gentle-things? Warm fuzzies all around, too, as long as I’m in charge. Of course, I’d give my speil about my experiences in order to model how I wanted youth to tell their stories with vulnerability, but I kind of thought grown-ups stopped doing that. Like once you out-grew the youth category, the group hugs and silly ice-breakers faded into the distance and were replaced with high-backed chairs and yellow notepads and people working in offices (oh, the horror!).

Enter cancer, at which point I ceased to be in charge of, like, everything, and then I met all these people who kept saying “loving kindness” and “tender this heart and tender that soul” and the like, until eventually I sort of started thinking (not saying, but maybe whispering and definitely writing) those things too. Even though I pretty much felt like I was dying last February, someone pointed me in the direction of Callanish and I went to a young adult cancer group there, and it was tender, and it was loving and it was kind and it was real. And in July, I went to a retreat, and it was also tender, and kind, and loving, and real, and careful, and magical. And today, I worked with the artist there on my breast casts, and it was tender, and kind, and loving, and real. See, I’m writing about loving kindness and tender moments, even if I’d rather hop on a roller coaster and whirl right through them in a blur so colourful and so fast no one would really be sure what was happening, not even me, but soon enough, we’d be on the other side, breathing hard and waving our hands to gesture at that one time, when I had a touch of breast cancer.

But since my fairy godmother apparently forgot to leave me a magic wand to grant myself these kinds of wishes, I’m left instead with an organization that cares, an artist who does work with girls in Nepal on the side and who stocks her art therapy studio with glitter and feathers and acrylics, two breast casts that my dear friends CJ and A made for me when we had the infamous “Goodbye Left Breast Gathering,” and a body that no longer fits into these two breast casts.

I literally no longer fit.

My breast is not that shape anymore. It can’t move and bend and squish into a pre-determined form the way a natural breast can, much less the form that was made from my old breast. Sounds kind of like my life trajectory, doesn’t it? Like pants you discover are too short five minutes before you need to leave for work when you’ve already picked out your top and your shoes and your earrings and they only match the now-too-short-pants. It’s a rushed, shocked, kind of not-fitting, but also the kind that can’t be given too much attention because there is too much else happening, too many other moments exploding and opportunities blinking and desires flashing, and also, you still have to find some other pants to wear because you can’t well go to work in your undies, even if they are sparkly and lacey, and you do have to go to work, because you need to pay the rent and your students need to learn about globalization and you want to go on a fancy vacation, which requires some ahead-of-time work, of course.

You know when it really hits me, this not-fitting, the absurdity of this fake-breast shoved under my pec muscle, albeit shoved skillfully by Dr. Yoga-Surgeon, an artist in her own right?  When I chop garlic. Weird, right? You see, I’m right-handed. So I smash the garlic cloves, with my right hand on the butt of the knife, and my left hand pressing down sideways on the sharp part, and the garlic peel curling off the clove underneath the side of the knife, and the smell erupting from underneath the knife and the kind of sticky garlic residue leaking onto my left hand. To do all that, I kind of lean into my left pec, and my hips press into the counter, and I’m sort of on my tippy-toes. And the breast imposter, what does it have to say about smashing garlic? It sears. It aches. It screams, “this is not how it is supposed to be.” The muscle is angry to be separated from my ribs, and yanks the whole boob-expander up my chest each time I crush a garlic clove, in what would be the weirdest “I can move my boobs on command” party trick ever.

So here I found myself, with the Art Therapist Who Presides Over Feathers and Sand and Acrylics, and the breast casts that seem frozen in a moment in time that is so wildly distant, a moment in time I so achingly want to inhabit. I painted the first one, the one we made as a practice, white. I know, I know. White. It’s the same color as the breast cast. Would you even know I painted it? Who cares if you know? It’s for me, anyway. And I added some silver and some blue, and more white. Inside, outside, white. Touch of silver. Maybe there was a touch of cancer underneath. I’m pretty sure the Art Therapist Who Presides Over Feathers and Sand and Acrylics doesn’t care if they’re white or plain or ugly or offensive, so why should you? I want to cut up the words from all the medical files, and stuff them inside of the breast as it was, plaster them on the breast pathologized and ruined, the breast that kept the cancer inside, and I want to splatter paint it with the pints of blood they drew from my poor veins, I want to trace the violence they enacted on my body on the faint lines of paper mache that tell the story of CJ and A, molding the breasts casts while everyone I love in Vancouver looked on.

It’s a tender evening. It’s a night we cooked together because we couldn’t bear to be far apart, and we smashed garlic for the arrabiata sauce, and we poured wine and bottle fed kittens and snuggled on the pink shaggy carpet in our living room. There is no roller coaster for me to hop on and make curlycues with instead of making my careful way through the cancer evidence, the breast casts and the fake boob, the scars and the friendships, the nausea and the memories. So maybe there is such a thing as loving kindness. They say there is. Maybe it’s like cuddling on the shag carpet and bottle feeding kittens and watching movies. Maybe grownups can still have group hugs and blue elaphants to sleep Maybe it’s like feeling tender and open and taking a bath and reading a novel (gasp!) instead of hacking away at the job letter. Maybe it’s just letting things be how they are. Maybe it’s just playing the ukelele with Sammy until the moonlight streams through the window.

Maybe.

A Tale of Two Lumpectomies: Oh Good Intentions

Remember October 7, 2013? Oh no, of course you don’t remember. That was Before Cancer, that was Before The Blog, that was quite simply, before. On October 7, 2013, I had a lumpectomy of what we thought was a non-cancerous lump in my left breast. Obviously, we were misguided by the radiologist who said “I’d fall out of my chair if you had cancer.” Even before we knew of the cancer, that lumpectomy was a big deal. My mother activated the gossip chains and my cousins called. My friends came over. People brought ice cream. Sammy took time off work. The list of people who requested a “she’s out of surgery” text was quite lengthy. It was a Big Deal. 

Fast forward to the same surgery, on the other breast, on August 6, 2014. It was so completely the opposite. It was not a Big Deal, and it was not even a Little Deal. I forgot to tell my bestie the date was changed. I bottle fed a litter of kittens as soon as I got home from surgery. Sam didn’t take any time off. Friends patched together who would take me, wait with me, pick me up (and I am insanely grateful for the way they made me laugh during the ridiculousness). No one required a “she’s out” text. I went to yoga two days later, ran a media workshop four days later, and chucked the pain meds into the overflowing medicine box without taking a single one. It was so completely not a Big Deal. It was not even a deal of any kind. It just kind of happened. 

It’s all relative, isn’t it? What we need from others, even for the exact same procedure, varies widely based on where we are in life, what’s going on, the circumstances and relative experiences. Of course, I got incredible emotional support from lots of people for both procedures, and amazingly, I got what I needed both times. The first time, I needed lavish attention and pints of ice cream and reassurance; the second time, I needed mostly non-attention sprinkled with humor about the ridiculousness and not too much concern over what was happenning, pathology reports, or outcomes. I got it, mostly, too, which is remarkable. 

It’s remarkable because when we try to help others in moments of crisis, we often lean over the fence and peer into their yard, assess the damage, and throw whichever life ring feels right in our hands. In our hands. That’s the thing, though. When we throw life rings over fences to friends in trouble based on what feels right in our hands, we forget that not everyone’s hands are the same as ours. So often, our helping of others is based entirely in a) our perception of what’s going on and b) what feels right to us. That’s really great sometimes, and sometimes it fails so badly. Like really badly. 

See, there’s two kinds of support communities for me— there’s the always there, always was there, always will be there crowd that includes family, friends, and others who were horrified at my diagnosis and wished they could do more than throw life preservers, and then there’s the young-cancer community. The latter is a community that is really different because they know more than the forever community about what the ground under my feet feels like, about what kind of life preserver I might be able to grasp, about when I really just need someone to swim alongside me for a while. They are separate, these two communities, and they are two communities I want to keep separate- for of course, I don’t want my forever community to become part of the cancer community. 

I want to urge us, though, to recognize where our good intentions come from. When we go to help, who are we helping? Who’s hands are we considering when we select the life preserver, and how could we possibly understand what life preserver would float best if we’ve never had an experience like the person in crisis? I know that when there are lots of people around throwing life preservers, it can be overwhelming. Often, the life preservers come in the form of advice and suggestions, ideas people have from leaning over the fence and staring at how I’m dealing with cancer, and then opening their mouth to tell me how they would do it, what I should do, how I should do it, how they will help me do what I should do…. 

And it feels like judgement. It doesn’t feel like the loving advice/help/suggestion/support it is meant to be. It feels like someone who has never been swimming critiquing my breaststroke kick. I try to shout back that their suggestion won’t work, but they’ve never been swimming, so they don’t understand how the water feels when my feet are flexed and kicking, and besides, I’m swimming, and I have to keep swimming, or at least, treading water, so I can’t really stop to chat without my mouth filling with water and then the language gets all garbled and the person with the suggestion for my breaststroke kick just keeps shouting their idea louder, and I know it won’t work, and they keep shouting because they love me and eventually I just put my head down in the water so I don’t have to listen to them anymore. And I promise, it was a good intention. 

What did I need, though? I needed someone to follow my lead. I needed them to stop leaning over the fence and peering in with ideas and suggestions and instead, to lay down on their side of the fence and listen through the wood slats, and tell me that they’d keep laying their and listening until I got to the part of the pool shallow enough to stand in. I needed them to start working away at the dirt under the fence, slowly and consistently, until there was enough space to wiggle their fingers through the dirt and into my hand. I needed them to momentarily suspend all of their knowledge (which may be vast) about my situation, and to stop giving advice, and to just be there instead, and support my decisions and actions and needs even if and even when they look all wrong from the other side of the fence. 

It’s amazing and remarkable that, given our desire to lean over fences and help people we care about with suggestions and advice and support we know will work anyone ever gets what they need– and not just in cancer, in any crisis. The first lumpectomy, I needed the attention. I needed the long list of people waiting for a “she’s ok” text. The second lumpectomy, I didn’t. Sure, I still needed a friend to come with me a curse the doctor who put the wire into the lump while I was awake and took forever to do it, and I still needed my mentor to say “well… it is a big deal” when I assured them it wasn’t, and I still needed some cancer-friends to check in with me after the surgery. But I so deeply appreciated that there were many fewer voices shouting suggestions over the fence. I sighed a breath of relief that daily life could go on. I needed some semblance of normal. 

So, on helping. On good intentions. Sometimes they hurt. Sometimes they grate in ways we never expected. Sometimes it’s worth it to halt the good intentions, the helping, the caring, the assuring to make sure the person in crisis needs it, wants it, can handle it, isn’t drowning because she’s attempting to explain why it’s not helping while she’s trying to swim. Sometimes, its unexpected, hard to understand, makes literally no sense from outside. And sometimes, from the outside, we have to swallow everything we know and remember exactly that… we are on the outside. Because, unless we are part of the cancer-friends group- or whatever like-crisis-group, we are on the outside, and we don’t know what’s best for someone else in crisis. It’s just like that. So, good intentions? Ivan Illich said it best. To hell with good intentions. 

we need each other: tiliches, cheese graters, lumpectomies

The hospital jerked around my lumpectomy surgery a thousand times, and they made me feel like a tiliche. A tiliche is, in Spanish, a little rag, one that can be jerked around and that flops in the wind. When I hear the word tiliche, I imagine a red rag tied to a stick, a red rag being whipped around in the wind without any control. First it was next week, then last week, then this week. Thursday then Wednesday then today, back to Wednesday. Tiliche indeed.

You see, I have a benign lump (so they say) in the healthy breast. We’ve known it was there for a while now. On mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, it shows as benign. You know what else showed as benign on mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy? My cancerous breast lump. So I don’t exactly have a whole lot of faith in the medical establishments’ ability to diagnose breast cancer. That’s why I’m having a lumpectomy, tomorrow, to take this lump out and make sure it’s benign. I’m a tiliche in the wind and I don’t have much trust that they know how to find a breast cancer lump in my body.

Each time the wind whips in a new direction, I have to scramble. Carefully laid plans with the best wire-insertion buddies (a totally inhumane procedure in which they insert a wire into the lump so the surgeon can find it) and people to pick me up and snacks for after are blown astray. They have to be reassembled, because if you don’t bring someone to pick you up in the middle of the day on some random weekday that keeps changing, they’ll cancel your surgery and then reschedule it probably seventeen more times. So at each cancellation, you have to figure out who can bring you, who can sit with you, who can pick you up.

This is one of the worst parts of cancer, one of the parts that rips the dignity associated with being able to take care of oneself right out of your hands, one that dangles your independence just out of reach and laughs when you realize you’ll never quite trust your easy independence as you did before. And so I was worried.

One friend- the best local friend- could do the original date but not the changed date, and then not the changed the second time date even though it was back to the original because it was at the last second. Another friend was missing that and needing to do this. Each time you have to ask, it feels a little more like a cheese grater running across your elbows, and you know you are a little bit more and more like that red tiliche flapping in the wind, hoping someone will catch you and ground you but not really sure anyone will. So we got it all set up for the second date, with Sammy dropping me off then heading to work, another buddy hanging around, and my mentor picking me up. And then the date changed with less than twenty four hours to the new surgery date: tomorrow.

Tiliche. Again. That day X doesn’t have a car, Y has a meeting, Z can try and move stuff around…. everyone wants to help, but the metaphorical cheese grater is still rubbing along my elbows, and only mine. And truly, I hate asking. It’s exhausting. It’s annoying. It’s not me. It’s risky, because people can and sometimes have to say no. I’m the only one who’s deck of playing cards doesn’t include no, the only one, who, when asked “Can we reschedule your surgery for tomorrow, be here at 6:30 am?” can only really answer, “Yes, doctor. I’ll be there,” though I’m thinking “But I have no idea how.”

But it worked. Sam is dropping me off. A cancer buddy is dropping by to crack bad jokes while we wait. A friend who called to say hi today asked if it would be helpful for her to swing by and see me while I wait in the morning. I said yes. And yoga J is picking me up. It takes a freaking village to have cancer, and it requires an ever-expanding village, because people in the village get tired. The person at the center of the village gets tired, too, but the cancer treadmill doesn’t stop, it just slows when “has cancer” morphs into “had cancer.”

So I’m grateful for the village, the one that is always expanding with new twitter buddies and friends to share wigs with, and the one I’ve had since before cancer, and all of them that make sure everything works out, even when asking for help feels like elbows on a cheese grater, even when needing to depend on someone feels like a tiliche in the whipping wind. Next time I know someone who has cancer, I’m going to make sure to check in with them about pick-ups and appointment buddies. Oh wait, I know tons of people with cancer. I’m going to text them just as soon as the pain meds wear off and I’m allowed to drive again.

Tiliches, cheese graters, community. We need each other. Tonight, I am grateful.

vacations

So here’s a revelation: I like resorts. Yah, I said that. No one hijacked my blog.

Me, the girl who has traveled through Latin America sleeping on dirt floors and hammocks said that. Me, the girl who easily links resort culture to ugly capitalism. Me, the girl who finds nothing to gritty, the one who will choke down terrible Central American cheese to please a nice old lady who made me lunch, the one who thinks nothing of having no travel plan until we arrive, the one who never cared if the only place to shower was the river, the one who turned her nose up at those gringo-grouping travelers for something more unique, more sweaty, more unpredictable, more full of moments when there’s nothing to do but sit on a strangers porch in awkward silence sipping juice with ice in it that maybe was made with purified water and wonder why traveling the world isn’t as romantic when you’re doing it as when you tell everyone about it.

That girl likes resorts. Even she is shocked.

Sam and I had a phenomenal vacation. It was truly incredible. We went to Hawaii, we stayed in (gasp!) a resort, we ordered room service and let them make our bed everyday and snorkeled with the turtles. We laid on the beach and drank mai-tais. We opted for the all-organic option on the menu. We rented a covered bed-thing at waters’ edge. We drew in the sand and oohed and aahed as the sun set. We traced the constellations in the sky from the hot tub. We upgraded our car rental to a sexy little convertible and drove it with the top down and the air conditioning blasting. We got seaside massages.  It was insanely expensive. And it was glorious. I loved every single second. And I have now declared to each and every one of my cancer-buddies, that this kind of extravagance is absolutely a post-cancer necessity. Because it is. Also, if you’re not yet in the “post,” it’s just fine to make it a cancer-necessity. Because it is. Sometimes, like post-cancer, you just need that kind of holiday. Frankly, I’d give anything to live in the kind of holiday forever, the kind where beaches lap at white sand and dinners involve multiple courses and there is a dark chocolate on my pillow every afternoon. But they dragged me home, kicking and screaming, and now I’m writing from my kitchen table, and it’s like a hundred million degrees in my apartment because we live on the third floor, and it was hotter in Hawaii but there were mai-tais and AC, so I didn’t care. Maybe I just need more mai-tais in my life. Or more Hawaii. Or both.

But anyways. Here’s some lovely photos of the loveliest holiday! (They call it that here in Canada. I’m now totally aculturated, and besides, doesn’t it sound sexier than vacation?)

lessons on life and death from a wood mouse

My clothes smell like campfire. As my marshmallow falls from my stick into the fire for the third time, I realize something is different. Someone is different. Me. I’ve spent the last week at a Callanish Healing Retreat for people who have dealt with and are dealing with cancer. For a week, eight of us huddled together in a circle and told stories, shared questions, compared experiences. Around us, the Callanish team gathered, supporting, providing comfort, facilitating, accompanying, listening. They were six life-altering, world-changing days overflowing with love, comfort, memories and hope. There are many stories I’d like to write, so today I’ll start with one near and dear to my heart, a story about life and death I learned from Consuela, a gray wood mouse with a white belly.

I met Consuela the morning after the hardest day. On the hardest day, I was angry and frustrated and sad and misunderstood. On the hardest day, we talked of death and dying, and my heart felt shrunken with fear. On the hardest day, my toes curled into the ground and I willed myself to believe “not me, not me, not me” as we were asked to write about how we might like to die. On the hardest day, others asked questions about dying, and they were answered, and I wished I couldn’t hear and imagined myself at yoga instead, even though a wisp of my spirit was curious about the answers. On the hardest day, the other young woman participating and I staked out a private lunchtime picnic where no one could find us, and we dangled our legs over the creek and spoke of not-dying. On the hardest day, she and I held tightly to life, we refused to glimpse over the edge to death, we were shaken as death was placed on our paths. On the hardest day, I felt terribly shaken, afraid and tender. On the hardest day, I felt the joy slipping away as it did when I was pumped full of chemotherapy. On the hardest day, I watched the sparkle dim as it did with each oncology appointment. On the hardest day, I sensed the disconnect between me and my body and the world widening, as it did each time I couldn’t explain my cancer to my loved ones. On the hardest day, death was staring at me in the face and I was running spooked, refusing to make eye contact, angry to be sharing the day together.

It was the next morning I met Consuela, and the next morning that she wiggled her way into my heart to teach me about death.

She was shivering, huddled on the dew-covered deck. People gathered around her, staring. My heart thudded when I saw her. I covered her with a towel, and then coddled her in my hands. She was cold, her tiny feet unsteady and her body shivering. She sucked at my finger, her eyes were closed, her little nose nudging at the creases in my hand. She barely moved. I wondered if she was a tiny baby, and how she escaped from her mama’s nest. I wondered if she was an adult, afraid and in shock. I decided she was my baby, my warm little body to nurse back to health, my small rodent friend to play with in the forest.

I settled her in for a nap as we began a musical session together, and I wondered if she enjoyed the sounds we each shared that morning. Did she like our singing, our oboe playing, our spoken word? Could she feel the love vibes and the friendship and the hopefulness? I imagined she could, as she rejuvenated in a bed of hand towels and tissue in the corner of the room. Consuela seemed perkier as we closed our music-sharing and headed to lunch. She pooped, she sucked water from damp corner of towel, she sniffed and opened her eyes. And then again, her sprite curiosity began to dampen, her soft gray body began to droop. Her lack of skin elasticity was a sure sign of her severe dehydration. I whispered to her that she needed to sip water, but I knew she was fading before my eyes. We decided that after lunch, we’d make her a hospice bed outside, near where we found her, so she could die in the wooded forests she called home.

Consuela must have heard us speaking deaths’ name and become angry, as I had on the hardest day when death was thrown in my path. She jumped up to say hello, scampered around, sniffed my fingers. What a transformation! We imagined the little bed we were building would only serve as a launching point, somewhere for our little mouse to rest briefly before she scampered off to tell her story to the other mice, a story of human encounter that would certainly become legend among the forest animals. We gathered together, many of us near the deck where we had found her that morning. I arranged a bed of leaves gated with dandelions and that backed into the creek-brush.

I knelt down with Consuela near the bushes and J The Wise, who is at the helm of Callanish, knelt down with us and we prepared to say goodbye. I blew Consuela a kiss and scratched the back of her neck. As we settled her into her leaf-bed, something in Consuela shifted. J The Wise asked what was happening, and those gathered around us murmured. Little Consuela’s foot began to tremble. I was flooded with memories of other small animals I’d cared for in their final days and hours, and I knew immediately. Consuela had begun the dying process. J scrambled closer into the bushes with me, and our hands encircled what was now most certainly a hospice bed. Consuela began to seize and I gasped, startled, at the violent movements of her tiny body. “It’s OK, it’s OK,”J The Wise said quietly, with her hand on top of mine as she asked, “Do you want to stay?” I knew we couldn’t leave little Consuela alone in her leaf-hospice bed, for not twenty-four hours before, we had talked so much of not dying alone, of being comfortable near death, of seeing nature and of feeling love during the dying process. And here we were, huddled with Consuela, and J The Wise was there, her head in the bushes with me, and G and A gathered close. There was much support and lots of togetherness, as our little wood mouse moved through the dying process. And so we waited. I stroked Consuela’s silky soft mouse-back and marveled at her big ears and delicate toenails. I wondered if we should turn her onto her belly from her side, but J The Wise, always a nurse, reminded us to leave this tiny seizing body on its’ side. We told her we loved her, and held her tiny paw.

We waited. Consuela’s seizing waned, and as it did, she began taking long breaths that filled her tiny body. Her little white belly expanded with each one, rising and falling with longer and longer gaps in between each breath. Sunlight filtered through the creek-brush, and the green leaves sheltering Consuela shimmered in the afternoon light. We were transfixed. We waited. The creek continued to rush by, its soundtrack soothing. We sent her meta. We told her we loved her. Her eyes burned awake still, and slowly and at once, they seemed to take on a reddish hue. She breathed again, a long, slow breath that lifted each of her ribs. And then she was still. Our little mouse friend had left us, gone on to the next world, and only her body was left behind in the mouse hospice bed. I covered her little body with a big leaf, tucking her in as her kind, bright spirit left her. She was gone. We stood. Everyone was still there, waiting, all of us sad our little friend had died.

I guess it was time to dance with death, after all.

We left her little body in the bushes, listening to the creek and letting the sun warm her fur for the last time. Come afternoon, we gathered purple and peach tissue paper, we tied a bouquet of yellow flowers, we cut yellow felt into hearts and gathered silky jewel toned ribbon. Next to the creek, I dug a shallow grave with a rock and lined it with the delicate purple paper. We settled Consuela’s little body in a large green leaf, and wrapped her in peach tissue paper. We tied it with a bow, and topped her papery casket with the tiny bouquet and soft yellow felt hearts. There was a eulogy. We loved her, and she was a good mouse, and a tremendous teacher, and a kind spirit. Her little body ready, we settled her in the ground next to the creek and slowly filled the grave with moist dirt and river stones. Piling the river stones high and in a circular pattern to mark her short but extraordinary journey from the woods into my hands and into our hearts and finally with us into death, we said goodbye. It was a goodbye weighty with gratitude, a serendipitous moment in which all the knowledge on death I had so feverishly resisted the day before coursed through my body, through these relationships, through our knowing. We were with death, with Consuela. And yet, funerals are for the living, as someone pointed to the day before as we all spoke death. So the funeral was for us, we were the ones left behind. Did the animal kingdom have a farewell ceremony, as well? Did they wonder where she was? Were they sending out search parties headed by mice with night-vision goggles? I wonder if they found her grave, if they gathered near the creek, maybe late at night under moonlight and remembered their brave mouse friend, like we did. Consuela’s funeral was for those of us human-friends of hers left behind, wishing we could ask her, “What does death look like? What’s over there?”

To call Consuela a friend would be true, but calling her a friend would barely begin to suggest how deeply she touched our hearts, how humbly she taught us lessons of life and death. Consuela the wood mouse was one of the greatest teachers that has ever graced my life. Great teachers know how to pace lessons for each spirit, they sense when learning can happen and tread gently and tenderly around the learning heart. Consuela was the greatest kind of teacher, the kind we all aspire to be. She waited for us on the porch, and snuggled with me throughout the morning as she worked her way into my heart, cupped against my body. I wonder how she ended up there, if she knew I’d find her, if she felt secure in my hands and if she was afraid of the unknown. Consuela rested in a cardboard box in the shade, waiting, while we ate lunch, and peeked out from my hands, sniffing and curious, as we built her hospice bed. And when we were as ready as she was, she gathered us into her presence and began the dying process, not a second too early, nor a second too late. She showed us dying can be done gracefully, with dignity, peacefully, outside. She took our hands and led us gently into this lesson on death and dying.

Only twelve hours before I met Consuela, I refused the invitation to think death, I bristled at the call to wonder about my own beliefs about dying. Consuela gently showed me that death lives inside all of us, in our bodies and spirits, in our friendships and hopes. Death is always there, living in our bellies, rooted through our feet into the earth. Death ties us together, braids our bodies into the earth, links our knowing into a much larger networked, living universe. We live dying, we will all die, we will all know death as Consuela did last Wednesday morning, and I hope we can know death with as much grace and love and dignity as Consuela did. And you know what? As J The Wise quietly said when I first trembled in horror at the beginning of Consuela’s dying process, “It’s OK.” It is OK. Dying is OK.

Consuela’s entrance into my life was profound, even as momentary and fleeting as our friendship was. Her presence was more than simple presence, it was the universe, taking care and the earth holding all her beings gently and in concert with each other.

Thank you, sweet Consuela, for sharing your soul with us in life, for teaching us about death, for letting us learn from and with you. You will not be forgotten.

Pictures to follow.