Tag Archives: spirituality

books that changed me: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

pilgrim-image

I have been a voracious reader since the young age where, in a flash of insight, markings on the page suddenly aligned to form words and meaning. I don’t know how old I was- four, five? But it seemed as though overnight a reader was born. One day I couldn’t read, the next day I could. It didn’t feel like a process of learning to read so much as a discovery of a latent ability. Like a baby swimming after being thrown into a pool, it felt natural, reflexive. Once I could read the basics, I graduated almost immediately to my parents books and magazines. I was insatiable; no stack of unread material would hold me for long. Still today I read fast, frantically,  and with an enthusiasm akin to how one devours pizza and beer at a Super Bowl party. But of the thousands of books I have gobbled in my lifetime, there are only a handful that have permanently changed me.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was on a long list of possible choices for my summer reading list prior to the start of my senior year of high school. I don’t recall why I picked this particular book, perhaps pulled in by a terse description as a “treatise on nature.” Or by a chance selection, an adequate supply at the local bookstore. Or maybe the hand of God pushed the paperback into my hands. No matter which scenario holds the best version of the truth, read it I did.

I was a 17-year-old city-dweller. I had no experience with most of the creatures Annie Dillard described with loving poetry – the muskrats, the birds, the plankton. But she illumined the mystery, the struggle to find meaning, and the sacred natural rhythms that surrounded me. She explored the land in her backyard and found traces of a divine I wasn’t sure existed, but it made sense to me without giving me specific answers. She voiced what I had felt intuitively, subconsciously, but hadn’t had the words to speak– that the closest thing to a power I’ll call God, for me, can only be found in growing, green things, and in the mountains and the birds and in blazing sunsets and sparkling stars and peeling birch bark and howling winds and the downbeat of a song. She was hungry to see it all, to understand the mystery. I read her words and found in my heart I was hungry too; I wanted to take everything in as she did: the shimmering lights and the looming shadows. Her words enlightened me to myself while simultaneously pushing me forward, cracking open my worldview and reminding me how little I knew, how much of the world I could discover if I dared.

It has now been nearly 17 years since I first read this book, a second lifetime repeated upon itself. I’m reading Pilgrim again, same copy I had in high school. My fingers trace the yellowed pages, the quotes that I underlined with a neon green pen. I don’t know if I see more clearly now than I did back then.  I don’t know if I fulfilled the dreams that were in my heart, the potential I believed was coursing in my youthful veins.  But here I am, again kneeling at her sacred words with my hand on my heart after carrying this book with me for at least 15 moves, thousands of miles, both literally and figuratively. It has sat on every bookshelf I have owned for 17 years. So while to reread something might pull me away from a new discovery, I believe there is a reason I have carried it with me all this time.  I believe it is time to start again.

the spinning wheel

I have been quiet lately, as I have been undergoing a challenging transition.  Amidst the tears and the pain, I know that I am growing and becoming. My life is going to be entirely different than I imagined, and my future is unknown.  But today the sun is shining, the birds are chirping gently, and despite the emotional storms of the past few months the morning breeze is gentle, as though the breath of a higher power is caressing me gently with the soothing reminder: yes, Katy, you will be okay.

And I know I will be.

Life cycles forward.  There is comfort in this spinning wheel of destruction, death, rebirth. It is the natural order of everything. We break down so we can begin again.  We fall so we can fly.

hummingbird-flight-794946

the rhythm of where I came from, the rhythm of where I am

It is amazing how my ideas of the seasons, the natural cycles accompanied by Earth’s journey around the sun are so shaped by growing up in the Midwestern US.  Even after dwelling in the desert for 8 years, I frown at the shoots of wildflowers reaching green tendrils up to the sky in January and exclaim No! Its too soon! Of course, what is wild and natural can be neither early nor late, but there is a part of me that still exists in Minnesota, that still appraises within the constructs of that world: long winters with temperatures that plunge well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit  Short, glimmery summers that pass with a breath of humidity, the buzz of mosquitoes  and then suddenly are gone. The sacred two week race between the 15th of May and memorial day to plant seeds if there is to be any hope of tomatoes in August.

The day I saw the beginning of wildflowers there was a high of -5°F in Minneapolis, and I think it was that part of me, still shivering in the North, that couldn’t accept my new home, the new rhythms of life. Barry Lopez writes on how disconcerting life in the Arctic is for those of us dominated by the simple truths of temperate living: the sun rising in the East, setting in the West, day after day. It is true in Tucson, albeit to a lesser degree. I get frustrated with Midwestern transplants that complain about the lack of seasons in the desert.  There are seasons, magical ones, but they aren’t our seasons. I understand this is really what they miss: the comforting truths of fall leaves crunching underfoot in early October.  The heavy snows of March. The breeze off the lake cutting through the humidity of July. And we can adjust to new places, humans are adaptable afterall. I tend to lettuce and chard during these months while Minnesota is under a blanket of cold and snow and ice, I open the door and let warm January breezes pass through the house. But there is still the part of us gazing at the world through the eyes of our childhood, from the perspective of where we came.

informed consent

Shortly after my mother was diagnosed with the lymphoma that would take her life, I was chatting with her and my stepfather about upcoming appointments.  I don’t remember the details, but he and I started anticipating the course of her treatment “first this, then that, followed by something else if another thing happens.” We were trying to plot out the twists and turns of a journey that is unpredictable, although we try our best to pretend otherwise. The conversation rapidly turned into my stepfather and I talking about my mother’s illness without including her in the discussion.

Hey, she interrupted. You know, its my choice.

What do you mean? We turned our heads towards the woman we loved.

Its my body.  I will decide whether I want treatment or not.

And she did decide.  She made many choices along the way.  She filled out informed consent forms.  She received printed lists of side effects, weighed pros and cons, talked to doctors and nurses and friends and family.  She said yes to chemo, many times over, knowing that it could trigger a cascade of events that could be life threatening. She said no to surgery, no to palliative radiation at the end of life, procedures that had the potential to give her more time, less pain.  Or maybe not. Who knows?

When I was working in bone marrow transplant, I thought the informed consent process was complete bullshit.  How could people know, really understand, what they were agreeing to? The pages and pages of potential risks and benefits, but really what it comes down to is a single patient plunging into the cold water. Some resurface on the other shore, some don’t, and you can make some predictions about probabilities but more or less, these outcomes remain the domain of powers greater than human insight. We can ask a patient to sign on the dotted line of consent forms, but for all the information and teaching and collaborating, any health care choice remains a leap of faith.

Life isn’t much different.  I’ve made choices that showered me with blessings, others that haunt me, a cluster of silvery specters that float in the corners of my mind during in the early morning hours. We all have moments where we reach a crossroads, and sometimes we don’t even realize these moments are occurring, have occurred, until years later. I’ve hit the junctures, I’ve tried to be informed, as best as I could be, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Its a plunge into icy waters, a journey into the unknown, a grasp at the hand of God.  I’m still swimming.

the magical compost pile

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two of our compost piles, hard at work.

The most magical place in our home is the compost pile. With open arms, it takes the dead, the rotten, the leftovers.  Add in sun and water and the hard work of slithery creatures and dutiful microbes, the compost is transformed into rich, black dirt.  It feeds our plants and flowers.  The micronutrients are reborn into something beautiful and often delicious.

I can see why people several hundred years ago thought life was formed from invisible particles that float in the air.  It seems as if God breathes onto our muck and turns it into something of inherent good.Things transform quickly. One day an apple core, the next day something new.  The building up from the breaking down, it seems divine.  But its just life, the everyday miracle of existence here on earth.

I wouldn’t say that God is decomposing the waste products from my thorough cleanout of the chicken coop this weekend, but this humble pile has taught me a spiritual lesson or two.

I will let the losses in my life transform me.  I will become stronger and healthier as I absorb the good from all whom I have left me, and all I have left behind.  That which I have lost is still with me, in the same way that the molecules in the flowers my mom sent me for my birthday last year will be reborn into this winter’s lettuce crop.

I want my mother back.  I want to sit next to her, drink coffee and feel her hand in mine.  But that is not possible. I have choices, though.  I can cultivate the gaping holes in my heart so something new can flourish.  I can grow.

the stories we tell ourselves

There is an endless buzz of chatter in my head.

Sometimes I tell myself nice things:

You are such a kick ass [wife, daughter, nurse, friend etc.]

You are really good at [laughing, scratching the dog’s ears,  playing harp music]

and then, of course, there is the negative, judgmental bullshit:

You really suck at [assembling Chinese-made furniture, calling your relatives, making small talk]

You look like shit today, and your thighs are basically disgusting

That’s an awesome idea, but you can’t pull it off

And even worse, projecting that kind of negativity towards others

You are a lot better than him because of [x, y, z]

She is clearly a fucking idiot

Its exhausting, and its all a load of crap.

If I’ve gotten anything from my daily mini meditation sessions, its being able to pull away, ever so slightly from the chatter. Its still there, buzzing away.  But sometimes the light burns through the smoke, and I can see a bit clearer.

Who I am is not my job, how I look in a dress, how I interact with others.  Who you are is not the balance of your bank account statement, how many friends you have on Facebook, how many countries stamped in your passport. We aren’t even good or bad.  We just are.

Maybe this is the void, to be everything and nothing at all.

It is scary for me to face this truth, to break away from old ways of looking at things.  I have spent much of my life valuing my worth based on how much you love me.  I have suffered because of this. You have suffered because of this. Nobody can love me enough.

But see, there is light breaking through my bullshit.  The stories we tell ourselves are just that: stories. They are as thin as the air we breathe. It doesn’t matter what I think, what you think.  Deep down, there is silence and there is peace.  Its the stuff we all are made of.

 

Buddha sez its all good

on faith

I am not a girl who was blessed with the gift of faith.  I fully embraced my secular family member’s values of critical reasoning from childhood.  And in many aspects of life, it helps to not place too much stock in what you believe to be true.  It may well be completely false.

But losing my moms taught me how to embrace faith.  I am changed now, and I understand how faith can be as important as the air we breathe.

Part of me still rebels against the very idea of faith. Despite the fact that my most brilliant family members include devout Christians,  I long attributed faith as something embraced by those less-intelligent than myself. Bad things happen, why dance around like everything will be okay?  Don’t believe that a God will make it all better– he/she probably won’t.

I grew up and became a nurse. The optimism of doctors in oncology was particularly annoying. Whatever, this patient is going to kick the bucket, why not face the music and get them go to hospice?  Maybe it made me feel superior, feeling like I could predict life and death.  The thing is, sometimes those patients did survive. Or they walked out of the hospital. Or they lived long enough to clap and laugh at their child’s birthday. Miracles happened, and sometimes I was too busy rolling my eyes to notice.

Mom, she had faith. Deep into her illness, she still believed she would get a bone marrow transplant and achieve that long-sought remission.  Or at least, that’s what she told me.  Who knows what is in another’s heart?  It drove a wedge between us, because I believed she would die only a few months after she started chemo.  She will die, she will die, she will die. It was all I could think about.

And she did die. But unfortunately, we didn’t bridge that gap between her faith and my obsession. In a certain way, we were estranged during the last year of her life. I did the best I could do in a painful and heartbreaking situation, but I still wish that things were different.

With my patients I’m not crippled by fear. I find myself saying so much more often you will do this, and its going to work. You’ll do very well. This cancer will be beat. I can’t predict that my patients will survive any more than I can predict that I will survive.  But hope is everything. I wasn’t able to embrace hope with my mom because I was too fearful. But if we only have today, this present moment, this now, why not be optimistic? Why not count on the very best?

In the end, we can’t fight what will and will not be. The cosmic die are cast, and are tumbling towards destiny.  We don’t know what is ahead of us tomorrow. So why not embrace the light, count on the miracle, expect the very best? The present moment is all we have.  Believing in a bright tomorrow helps one relax a bit, don’t you think? The energy we spend dwelling over the certain destruction ahead can be better spend enjoying the sun, the smile of a loved one, the wagging tail of a dog.

The monsoon has come to the desert, and we have spent this 4th of July doused by the rains. I raise my face to the sky, embrace the drops stinging my face, and join the chorus in faith that these showers will transform the sterile, dusty earth to a green paradise, full of life.

moving forward

Its been two years since I got the news that my Mom had cancer while sitting on a park bench, under an olive tree, on the last Saturday in June.

Last year, I was cautiously hopeful, and this year she is gone.

This bench has become an unmarked shrine for me.  When I pass by, I often sit on that bench, missing her.  Talking to her.  Remembering.

I went for a run yesterday with my dog, and intended to sit on that bench and do what I usually do, but when I went by the bench yesterday it was occupied.  A leathery, barefoot man with a thick white beard was playing a guitar.  Wrapped bundles, containing perhaps all of his posessions were piled on the bench next to him. Strangely ethereal music full of arpeggios filled the humid air as he plucked the steel strings. I stood next to him for a bit while my dog sniffed out a bush.  The transient appraised me with a bored glance and continued to play.

I thought about stopping him, thanking him for playing and telling him he was in a special place, where I found out my life was going to be different, where I still feel connected to this wondeful woman who got sick and died before her time.  But the thing was, I didn’t want him to stop playing, and there is something else…

I am not sure I believe in signs, but I’d like to think this wandering musician, this hobo angel had a message for me.  It is time to move forward.

I’ve been grieving for two years.  Grieving the loss of my mom’s health, and then her life.  My process isn’t done, but maybe its time to explore how to grieve, but to also be free.  To find some way to compromise sadness and loneliness with joy and adventure.

So, yesterday, two years after my world shook, I didn’t sit down with heavy shoulders.  I kept moving.

your story

Throughout my mom’s illness and during the aftermath, a number of people stopped short with me.  They sucked in their breath when starting to complain about a problem they had, or minimized their pain regarding a certain issue. “You know, this is nothing compared to what you are going through” or “I shouldn’t even be telling you this.”  If I were more of an orator and less of a writer, maybe I would have told them this:

No.

No.

No.

Buddha had it right. We are human so we suffer. We suffer and we suffer and we suffer. Your pain is real, as though it was wound up in the helix of your DNA.  Maybe you still have a healthy mother.  But you have walked through other challenges that I have not experienced. My pain doesn’t separate us, in fact it brings us closer.  We are united in the experience of loss. 

To say that all human suffering is equal is both true and not true.  There are tragedies which chill us to the core, which break a human being, which cause entire communities to light candles and whisper and shed tears.  War crimes. Torture. Abuse. I’m not speaking of these horrors, which seem so senseless and wrong but do teach us that there is no limit to human suffering.  I am speaking of more of our everyday tragedies.  Illness, heartbreak, disappointment, death.  Even the wealthiest and the most blessed walk beside us with these.

Suffering is something that cannot be escaped, so don’t deny your feelings.  They are real, they make you human. At the same time, listen to others.  I take care of cancer patients, but I have never had cancer.  I hear their stories 5 days a week, and while I have never had a somber doctor stand over me and tell me its growing, its spreading, I need chemo or surgery or radiation, tell me I may lose my hair, my fertility, my limb, or my life, I understand a little bit (not entirely, but a little bit) of what they go through.  Their stories help me find gratitude, help me appreciate the transient gift of health.  Maybe my story helps you find gratitude for the mother that you have, whether she is your best friend or someone you barely know.

In losing what we love the most, we are shown the one thing we can hang on to: a spirit which is beautiful and buoyant and resilient, more than we ever imagined it to be.  In our pain and suffering, we can become teachers, we can inspire.  Our tears, our long nights on hard floors, our deep hunger has brought us to where we are today.  The darkness has taught us to appreciate the light.

See, your story is important– as important as you are.  I want to hear it from your lips, your pen or your flying fingers.

 

butterfly birthday

let flowers bloom. my birthday Adenium

Today is my birthday.  I’m 32.

In general, the years are speeding up as I age, yet this one has felt long.  I can’t remember my birthday from last year very well, other than I spent it away from my mother who was in Houston, and was feeling the special flavor of unease you feel when separated from a sick loved-one. So very much has changed since then.

I have struggled with grief and despair this week, but this birthday seems particularly blessed.  I have been touched by unusually thoughtful gifts and expressions of love.

  • my coworkers pulled together money to purchase a piece of art that was for sale at the Cancer Center, simply because they noticed I would look at it every day and smile
  • a woman I deeply enjoy but have never had the opportunity to know well gave me an exotic plant crowned with beautiful pink flowers. Her husband nurtured this plant from seed for years in his greenhouse.
  • a woman I discharged to hospice months ago, fully expecting her to pass away soon, walked into the Cancer Center and gave me a huge hug, some small gifts, and a card covered with butterflies.
  • and more…

I have often felt awkward on my birthday- uncomfortable with the attention and the unilateral gift-giving.  This year I feel profound loss, yet an even greater gratitude for what I do have. Every card, gift, text message and embrace has been meaningful and beautiful.  I am part of a huge network of love, with lacy fingers that envelop the globe.  No, I don’t deserve it, but in life we get both less and more than we deserve. I’m 32, and way overdue to learn to accept a love that makes me shudder with its magnitude.

My friend told me “Its your butterfly birthday!” And she is right.  Grief is transformative. Our losses can bring us to the brink of madness, and at the same time blast apart our shell, open our hearts, let the light in.  Grief rolls in like a 10 armed Hindu goddess that can destroy the universe with a flick of a wrist and maniacal smile, yet if you don’t go down in the fiery blaze she’ll also take away that which limits you.

I wish we could keep our loved ones by our side forever, but the universe is built on death and destruction.  Still, flowers bloom in the ashes, babies are birthed in pain and blood, the worm is torn apart to become a winged thing of beauty.  This is the mysterious, wonderful, terrible, and awesome way of the world.