Being Woke by an Inner Life

I enjoy reading the works of folks who have lived the problems they address.  For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his book on Ethics in part from the inside of a concentration camp where he was imprisoned and executed in 1945 for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  The book Alcoholics Anonymous speaks to the direct experience of those in recovery from alcoholism.  I am currently reading the diary of Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life, that chronicles the last two years of her life as a Jew in Holland prior to her transfer to Auschwitz where she was executed.  A line that stood out to me from her diary is (p. 88):

If you have a rich inner life, I would have said, there probably isn’t all that much difference between being inside and outside of a camp.  Would I myself be able to live up to such sentiments?

I have thought of this challenge a great deal of late.  I equate the “inner life” as my spiritual/emotional/mental state and the “outside life” as my physical state.  There is no denying that my physical existence in line with my eventual mortality and cancer has an unknown expiration date.  I know too that I am less physically able than I was one year ago.  I have lost some 50 pounds, am a bit anemic, sleep more, have not been on my bike for the past month, have more aches and pains, and so forth.

At the same time, I am aggressively dealing with these physical issues, the results of which I have no assurance.

But today, I thoroughly enjoy my “outside life” events even more than before.  I enjoy being able to walk around the block with Emma and Grace as much as a 20-mile bike ride a couple short years ago.  Going out to the movies, spending an hour weeding the garden, eating a simple meal, listening to music, all bring me great joy today.

I attribute this joy to my pursuit of a rich inner life.  Whether it is Emma and I attending the early morning Sunday service at Rayne, serving meals at Mt. Zion, my Wednesday morning School for Contemplative Living meeting, our Friday dream study group, men’s UMC meetings, and all of the relationships, dinners, conversations with family and friends that flow from these activities, my spirit soars as never before in my life.

In the Universal Christ, Richard Rohr writes (p. 153):

It does not mean you are going to heaven and others are not:  rather, it means you have entered into heaven much earlier and thus can see things in a transcendent, whole and healing way now . . .   Saints are those who wake up while in this world, instead of waiting for the next one.”

The rich inner life of which Etty Hillesum speaks is certainly part of that being woke and a goal to which I aspire.

AA’s Fourth Step and Shadow

My Friday morning book study recently read Robert Johnson’s Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche.  Following Carl Jung, Johnson (1993:4) defines the shadow as ” . . . that part of us we fail to see or know.”   One of the study group members commented that their experience with AA and the 12 Steps fit well with Johnson’s notion.  The member noted how fortunate he was to have the 12 Steps as a guiding principal not just in recovery, but in his total life.  His comment got me to thinking of that overwhelming truth.

The Fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” is precisely the introspection that can lead to owning our shadow selves.  The Tenth Step “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it” allows continuing that process on a regular basis.

I recall my early days in recovery and the struggle to accept responsibility for the events in my life, in large part based on a refusal to examine and claim my shadow self.  For example, much of my life was governed by an uncontrollable anger at people, places, and things, but in the throws of my addiction, I refused to examine my part in those resentments.  I had a shopping list of people and actions to readily blame.  However, the Fourth Step began the process of understanding my role in those situations.  Inevitably that led to an examination of my shadow I had failed to see or know.

In claiming the anger that governed much of my existence, I came to become more accountable.  Through the Serenity Prayer concepts of accepting what I cannot change, having the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, my anger transforms into a tool to live life on life’s terms.  Owning this anger is particularly helpful in today’s highly polarized blame game for social, political, and economic issues.  Instead of just pointing out the very real evils of the world today, I can examine my role in creating those evils.  I often find my role comes down to one of inaction and complacency as someone living a privileged social and economic existence.

I do not think claiming and owning one’s shadow means being a doormat or wearing sackcloth in a “woe is me” sort of way.

In The Book of Joy, written about the philosophies of The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Douglas Adams writes (pp. 223-224):

Acceptance, it must be pointed out, is the opposite of resignation and defeat.  The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama are two of the most tireless activists for creating a better world for all of its inhabitants, but their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is.  The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid, but he did accept its reality.

Acceptance allows us to claim our shadows, as in the Alcoholics Anonymous Fourth Step, and begin to deal with life on life’s terms.

 

Living Life on Life’s Terms

I often comment that a key to my addiction recovery is living life on life’s terms.  I find the same is true with cancer and whatever else is going on with my physical state these days.  The fluid on my lungs and related issues cause me to be short of breath for any activity other than sitting or laying down.  Though I am taking the steps and fully anticipate this issue will be dealt with in the short-term, the other day I got to feeling sorry for myself over my mobility limitations.  My thinking then morphed into wondering if this was going to be the new normal.  After a few hours of dwelling in the problem, I was fortunate that my AA recovery mindset kicked in.  Here are some thoughts:

  • I have not been on my bike in a month and my gardening is restricted to weeding, watering, and harvesting – not much expansion these days.  But with restricted physical activity, I have returned to an old love of reading fiction.  A few days ago, while sitting on the back porch with a glass of Red Zinger iced tea and reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, I was overcome with the serenity and joy of the experience.  My friend Ernest’s conversation about Chekhov and Chopin got me to pulling books off shelves that were only gathering dust.  I then thought of my favorite poets – B.H. Fairchild, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and W.S. Merwin and rekindled the delight of their words.  That sparked conversation with my friend Kathleen who introduced me to a favorite poet of hers, Philip Levine.  As I sipped the Red Zinger tea, enhanced with peppermint from our garden, I recognized that this period of limited physical activity had actually opened up avenues of enjoyment and growth that had lain dormant in recent years.
  • After being off of chemo for a couple of months, and with mild increase in stomach and back pain and a catheter on my left side, my comfortable sleeping positions became limited.  Recently, sleeping in bed has not worked.  But I can be comfortable on the couch, relying on the additional back support.  As I lay on the couch the other night, completely pain free and in comfort, I was grateful for the solution.  I luxuriated in the complete and total pain free comfort of my rest and drifted off to a very good night’s sleep.

In his new book The Universal Christ, theologian Richard Rohr writes (p. 83) about the “coincidence of opposites” noting:

How does anyone achieve such a holding together of opposites – things like inner acceptance and outer resistance, intense suffering and perfect freedom . . . God seems to send us on a path toward our own wholeness not by eliminating the obstacles, but by making use of them.

These words certainly resonate with me.  My years in a drunken alcoholic condition ultimately delivered me to the perfect freedom of recovery.  The new health obstacles I face provide me with the opportunity to live into alternative solutions.

Today, I am grateful and truly blessed.

Time and Cancer

Sunday afternoon I was sitting on the back porch when Emma called to me and said a friend had dropped by with a gift.  I went inside and was presented with a copy of the Garden Log Book: A 5-Year Planner.  The contents include worksheets to plan and record 5 years worth of planting, chores, goals, projects, pests, harvesting and more for gardens.  The book is perfect and incorporates much more than notes I had begun in a Word document earlier this season.  I look forward to using the worksheets.

But . . . the “five year planner” got me to thinking.  I have stage 4 stomach cancer, and in fact, I was supposed to be dead over one year ago.  In that respect, planning for things five years down the road seems a bit overly ambitious.

But . . . then too, particularly since the first of the year I have been thinking more that, one day at a time, I will continue to wake up every morning, make my cup of tea, feed Grace, go through my morning rituals, and live my day with no end in sight.  I have noted before that gardening is such a life affirming activity, I cannot imagine dying while I still have crops in the ground that need to be tended and harvested – and given our near year-round growing season here in New Orleans, that mindset ensures life in perpetuity.

And . . . this year I increased the effort put into planning our gardens, expanding space and crops, and starting plants from seeds.  This year too I started twice the number of seeds for each plant type than I planned to grow, intending to give away the extras.  So now there are folks in my neighborhood and as far away as Memphis who have planted seedlings of tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers, and squash that started on our back porch.  And just yesterday a friend dropped off some plants for me as my basil seeds had not produced.  I feel totally enmeshed in growth and thoroughly enjoy engaging with others in the process.

If I reflect back over the last year, today some things I do more efficiently and some things a bit slower.  But today I feel more alive and living into my true self more than ever before.  I am leaning more into an understanding that none of us gets out of this thing alive, cancer or not.  There is no guarantee I will even get half-way through the five-year garden log book, but neither would anyone else who received the book.  I am grateful for the gift not just for the practical use of recording my garden activities but for providing me the opportunity to reflect on and live a more full life today.

I am truly blessed.

A Health Update

Cucumbers, Acorn Squash, and String Beans in full bloom!

The past couple of months have not been my best physically, but the future looks good.  Specifically:

  • The last few rounds of chemotherapy have brought me face-to-face with some of the worst effects “chemo brain” and fatigue.  In reality, I don’t think the effects were a lot worse than the first rounds, but there was something distressing this time in checking out from many normal activities for the two months of the treatment regimen.  The good news is that I have finished my chemo regimens, and pending insurance approval, in the next couple of weeks I will start on immunotherapy with KEYTRUDA.  This treatment should have far fewer side effects and be just as effective, if not more than my chemotherapy to date.  All very good news.
  • This past Sunday evening, after being on the road for one week visiting family and friends, I sort of limped back into New Orleans, completely exhausted and severely short of breath.  I could not walk from one end of our house to the other without sitting down midway to rest.  The shortness of breath results from the battle with fluid on my lungs since this past October.  On April 1st, three liters of fluids were drained from both lungs.  Thanks to the excellent care I receive at Touro Infirmary, this past Monday within just a couple of hours of making the phone call, two liters were drained from just my left lung, which brought immediate relief.  I could take Grace for a walk as soon as we returned home from Touro.  The cause of the fluid accumulation is the cancer and the chemo used for treatment.  My pulmonologist convincingly argued that it was time to install a catheter tube so that I could drain the fluid at home every few days as needed.  He installed the tube this past Monday as well.  Today, with Emma’s assistance, I drained another liter of fluid here at home. The ability to keep the fluid regularly drained will be a huge enhancement to my daily life in everything from gardening, bicycle riding, and just walking around the block.

So although my last couple of months have had ups and downs, I am optimistic for the future.  Over the past few months, the likely need for a catheter and switching to immunotherapy were raised by and discussed with the medical team at Touro Infirmary.  I simply cannot say enough about the excellent care they have provided me over the past two years of cancer treatment.

I remain grateful for my life today and the support of my best friend Emma, and all of my family and friends.  My plans are filled with travel, projects, and lots of gardening.

Life is good and I am blessed.

Being Alive Today

I have stage 4 cancer . . .
. . . and I was supposed to be dead a year ago . . .
. . . but today I kissed and hugged my wife good morning
And went through my morning rituals of reflection and insight
And drank rich coffee and ate fried eggs and buttered toast

. . . and I was supposed to be dead a year ago . . .
. . . but today I took a long hot shower luxuriating in the warmth
And copyedited a Wikipedia page on a Paraguayan soccer coach
And wrote an essay for my Coursera memoir writing course

. . . and I was supposed to be dead a year ago . . .
. . . but today I ate a bowl of cream of potato soup and savored every bite
And went to the coffee shop for a latte and some reading time
And bought a 200-count bottle of multivitamins

. . . and I was supposed to be dead a year ago . . .
. . . but today I went to the library to sit and read a bit, and find a new novel
And drive past The Fly just to see how high the River is
And then came home and took a nap

. . . and I was supposed to be dead a year ago . . .
. . . but yesterday was Ash Wednesday, and I got mine
And I think of how comforting it is to know that “to dust I shall return”
And the sun has yet to go down on this day, or me

. . . and I was supposed to be dead a year ago . . .
. . . but I am alive and grateful for this day

Simhah in cancer therapy

Just some of our garden seeds coming up. Thursday will begin transplanting outdoors!

Over the past year I have had several wonderful conversations with my friend Paige about her Jewish faith. My journey is enhanced by incorporating the basic tenets of all three Abrahamic faiths: Jew, Islam, and Christian – along with a healthy dose of other traditions.  Paige recently sent me a book Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Guide for Seekers by Arthur Green.

His first “best idea” is simhah or joy.  I immediately thought of my past blogs inspired by the The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.  The five pages on joy by Green resonated with me on a very direct and applied level.

He tells the story of a Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav who struggled with simhah.  Green writes (p. 6)

Don’t ignore your sadness, he taught, but chase it in order to transform it into happiness.  He offered a parable that describes you, his reader, as a person in a roomful of dancers, but standing on the sidelines because our mood is too dark to let you enter the circle.  Finally, someone grabs you by the hand . . . forcing you to join in the dance.  As you warm up and begin to move, you notice your former sadness still standing back there on the side, looking somewhat disapprovingly at this new behavior and just waiting for you to stumble or feel self-conscious.  The real task, says Rabbi Nahman, is to force that sadness itself into the circle and to make it dance, to see that it too is transformed into joy.

In my recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous I find that making a gratitude list each morning a tool that gives me an attitude of hope to start each day.  I have consistently said that by living one day at a time as a recovering alcoholic for the past three decades has been excellent training for my life today with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.

Something about Rabbi Green’s words struck a deeper core within me.

Yesterday, I was at the Touro Infirmary Infusion Center for my four hours of chemo, followed by wearing a chemo pump for the next 46 hours.  I arrived home in a rather foul mood.  What else could one expect while having poison pumped into their body?  But consider Rabbi Nahman’s circle of dance where:

  • one of the immediate benefits I always feel from chemotherapy is reduced pain – and this time is no exception.  Before starting my current chemo regimen two weeks ago, I had perpetual stomach cramps – as I write this, I have no stomach pain.
  • last night for supper my loving wife fixed me a grilled cheese sandwich, a food with a greater probability to “stay down” as the poison (specifically a cocktail called 5FU4) works its way through my system.  The sandwich was delicious and perfectly suited my appetite.  I thoroughly enjoyed every bit.
  • my cancer diagnosis has brought me into a circle of dancers who have helped bring me to a peace that passes all understanding extending well beyond the manifestations of cancer.
  • I thoroughly love that I have the energy and desire to work in my garden – which  brings me tremendous happiness.  Gardening is very life affirming for me.  I have taken to saying that so long as I plant a garden in the spring, I cannot die until everything is harvested.  Given our nearly year-round crop cycles here in New Orleans, that belief may prove to be as effective as my chemotherapy treatment!
  • Today is Mardi Gras.  In 1975, Mardi Gras was filled with darkness, despair, and a two-day blackout.  Although I will only listen to the parades from our house today, I am able to participate in the circle of dance that is carnival here in New Orleans.  Quoting Bob Dylan “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.”

This list can go on and on.  Simhah teaches me to fully participate in the dance of happiness, walking this earth for one more day, created in the image of God.