If every (alcoholic, cancer) breath I have ever taken . . .

In April of 2001, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Canal Street in New Orleans while in town to attend a professional conference.  I was in the coffee shop visiting with a former colleague from graduate school days at the University of Illinois.  He spoke of how his career and personal life were not going as he hoped.  After he spoke for a while, I very intentionally chose my words and said “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”  That idea had rolled around in my head for a while, but I never said it aloud until that day.  Today, I affirm the same sentiment – my life has perfectly led me to where I am today.

Let me explain.

Today, through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have a life that exceeds the best of any situation I can imagine.  I married my bride over 19 years ago and she is truly my best friend and confidant.  We have racked up some wonderful adventures together and have more to come.  I retired from a rewarding career with a job description completely aligned with my interests and vision.  Step 3 of AA launched me on a now three-decade long spiritual journey that continues to evolve.  My church home at Rayne Memorial UMC along with activity and friends in the School for Contemplative Living are the bedrock for my spiritual existence.  Today, I also live into a life of service consistent with the embryonic values I held over 45 years ago as an inner-city student teacher.  My life has a greater meaning than ever before.

An old friend from high school commented to me once that he never realized I had such a “rough life” early on in battling my demons and alcoholism.  But today, if I truly would not “change a thing” I am blessed by the lessons of my drunken alcoholic past.  Besides sharing my experience, strength, and hope, particularly with students in my classrooms over the years, I know too that those drunken days and the sobriety that followed provide me with the wisdom of how to live today.

Then, this past August, I received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with a still unknown primary source.

I participated in a recent discussion where someone commented about the need to look for the silver lining in such adversities.  I think differently.  I don’t need to look for a silver lining for my cancer diagnosis.  In fact, the diagnosis was a wake-up call for me to prioritize those things that are important in my life.  When I retired in 2016, for the first year, I put nearly the same amount of effort into my career, but I was no longer drawing a paycheck.  My wife had retired from her full-time position to take on another full-time position in opening a business that had been her lifelong dream.  We both could have continued our separate retirement careers for years.

My cancer had other plans.  The original prognosis was that I might be dead by last Christmas.  That did  not happen.  I sat with my oncologist a couple of weeks ago and candidly discussed the unknowability of my prognosis, though he is very pleased with how I am doing.

Cancer has allowed Emma and I to focus on what we want to do in our lives.  We are all mortal and we don’t know when that mortality will be called in – as is clear for the 17 in Parkland, Florida.  So, I am not looking for a silver lining in my cancer diagnosis.  It is all silver and gold and is a wake up call for re-ordering my life priorities in the same way the massacre at Douglas school is an opportunity to take steps to end that carnage.  On a personal level, I will not waste the cancer wake-up call, as we must not waste the lives of the 17 in Parkland, and those before, as a national wake up call.

Alcoholism, cancer, mass murder – the only regret I can have is if I do not learn, absorb, and grow from the implications of these life events.  I must take the appropriate actions in living into the understanding that we are all truly made in the image of God and must treat ourselves and all those in our luminous web of life accordingly.  If I can continue moving in that direction of true self, I will be able to continue saying “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”

 

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley – A Review

A couple of months ago I received a package in the mail from an unfamiliar address in Midtown Memphis.  I opened the package to discover a set of prayer beads made by Suzanne Henley.  I met Suzanne once via my wife’s writers group in Memphis.  An enclosed card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert describe the beads from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more.  I was blown away by both the beauty and the significance of the creation.  Now, I carry the beads in my backpack and they go everywhere with me.  They are a regular part of my centering prayer and other contemplative exercises.

Suzanne has now published a book Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018).  The book is composed of three parts: an historical discussion of prayer beads followed by a set of prayer activities, and a final section where readers are “encouraged to draw their own set of prayer beads and, with discernment and prayer, label each bead. They then can keep and literally hold their life in their hands in prayer, gratitude, and awe.”

The book is all of that and much more.

In the introductory comments Suzanne notes “I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself.”  As an artisan who creates prayer beads, the Prologue to the volume lays out the intent and perspective in her creation.  The beads Suzanne uses in her creations include “handmade Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic prayer beads as well as rare Hebron beads of Dead Sea salt . . . replicas of third-century Ethiopian Coptic crosses and Stars of David, hand-carved Chinese jade pendants, or river rocks collected from my fishing sites.”  The anthropologist in me delights in her noting that when handling the beads “I am the latest in a long line to add the imprint of my hands’ oils to the human and earth-marked patina of all those who have come before me. I feel the weight of their histories in my palm.”

The abundant illustrations in the volume attest to the 800 individualized sets of prayer beads she has created, some commissioned for the likes of The Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, along with the holy, secular, and terminally ill across the globe.  (Suzanne’s gift to me was prompted by my recent cancer diagnosis.)  She observes that while formal worship in churches is on the decline, the increased popularity of prayer beads means people are “simply carrying their altars with them in their pockets” as they go through life.

After the introductory material there is a solid 20-page section of prayer bead history beginning with their several thousand year-old Hindu origins in Vietnam and continuing to the present day.  The comprehensive summary highlights prayer bead development, particularly for the Abrahamic faiths.  Suzanne highlights the 4th Century Desert Fathers who used pebbles to count the number of times they said a prayer, through to the familiar Roman Catholic Rosary and Islamic prayer beads that hold the 99 names of Allah, to the more recent evolution of  Protestant or Episcopal prayer beads.  The history section has many historical notes of interests, such as that the earliest recorded Roman Catholic rosary belonged to Lady Godiva of horse-riding fame.

My Prayer Beads Gift Created by Suzanne Henley

The next section considers the range of prayer types both with and without beads, drawing on the works of modern contemplatives such as Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr and the more ancient traditions such as the Celts.  Suzanne also discusses prayer bead use with chants, hymns and in silence.  Drawing on her personal practice, she broadens the tactile experience of prayer beads to include handling fruit in the grocery store.

The book could have ended at this point and been a worthwhile read.  However, Suzanne’s final sections of the volume are of immense value for the novice and experienced user of prayer beads.  With a good bit of autobiographical material she tells her story including recovery from extreme depression and a heart attack to a chance encounter exploring how the Holy Spirit is like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  These life changing experiences resonated with me as a recovering alcoholic.

As “homework” she invites the reader to construct a prayer bead activity based on their life experiences.  Suzanne provides ample guidance in the form of writing exercises and meditations to achieve this goal.   I found this invitation to be the punch line of the book.  The earlier sections on the history, tradition, and contemporary contemplative use of beads were interesting, informative, and certainly directing in terms of practice.  As well, reading Suzanne’s story provided grist for further considering personal use.  However, the homework allows the reader to completely contextualize and apply prayer bead practice to their experience.

The 20 color illustrations of prayer beads created by Suzanne are a welcome addition to the volume.  At under 100 pages of text, the volume is readily accessible to all.  The 9 chapters can readily be adapted to a group study where participants create their own set of prayer beads.  I look forward to working through the exercises included in Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New  to enhance my use of Ms. Henley’s gift to me.

A Valentine Gift

Today, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, I had my regularly scheduled oncology visit and all the news was good as follows:

  • my CAT scan this past Monday revealed no appreciable, if any, spread of the cancer in my bones.
  • The scan showed a minor increase in a lymph node.  Under normal circumstances, the increase would not be a cause of concern.  However, given that the primary source of my cancer remains unknown, exploratory surgery will be ordered.  Dr. Sonnier, my oncologist noted that the procedure is done via laparoscopy and might require one or two days in the hospital.  Noteworthy is that this will be the first time in my life since being born that I will spend the night in a hospital.
  • Dr. Sonnier remains pleased with my continued health, physical activity, and that the alkaline phosphatase level in my blood dropped from over 1300 in August to 160 today which is just a bit higher than normal.  I asked if we could be sitting here one year from now, with me basically in the same physical condition, still looking for a cancer source, and he responded in the affirmative.
  • I got my monthly x-geva shot at the Infusion Center and had great conversations with my RN friends there including about Erin’s recent trip to Chile, growing okra, what the January hard freeze killed in our yards, and other important things.

Today in New Orleans it is 79 degrees and partly sunny.  I cleaned up around the shop from all the Mardi Gras festivities, turned soil in our garden and planted an early spring crop of kale and collards.

Life is good and I am blessed.

Healing in Alcohol and Cancer

Healing – My favorite painting by my wife Emma Connolly

This past Sunday, Marissa Sue Teauseau, our Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church preached a message that profoundly affected my understanding of healing as a recovering alcoholic with a cancer diagnosis.  She spoke of her experience ministering to a terminally ill young man and family and his healing.  Marissa then linked that healing to the scripture reading for the day in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus healed Andrew’s mother-in-law, she got up and served him.   (I note that our Senior Pastor, Jay Hogewood, asked me to be the lector for the reading that day at church, the significance of which just dawned on me.)

Marissa’s message kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire sermon as she deftly wove a web of healing and service.  As I walked home from church and over the next few days, the seeds her words planted grew to give me a more complete understanding of healing over my last 30 years.

I never viewed my recovery as an alcoholic as a healing, but I see now that is very much the case.  Marissa also spoke of her limited experience with the “miraculous” end of healing.  That statement resonated with me too.  I have long asked the question “Why Me?” in my remaining sober for over 30 years when relapse is a common experience for addicts. In recovery, I live into the Twelfth Step service mandate to “carry the message to others” about the gift of sobriety.  Being of service is important to my existence.

Since my initial diagnosis this past August, I tried to define my existence with cancer.  I am not a cancer victim, as I refuse to be a victim of anything.  I am not certain a cancer survivor is an accurate term as my oncologist has never backed off from saying my stage 4 cancer is incurable.

I listen to taped affirmations around cancer on a pretty regular basis.  My favorite time is when walking to and from church on Sunday morning.  When I first began listening to the affirmations, I tended to gloss over the ones that spoke of white cells and medications attacking and destroying the cancer cells as I am not on chemo drugs or radiation therapy.  However, all tests show that the cancer is not expanding. I am in less pain today than two years ago and more physically active than one year ago.  More importantly, I am mentally, spiritually, and emotionally more alive than in many years.

Marissa’s sermon from this past week showed me how my cancer diagnosis is the opportunity to focus on healing and being of service.  There is much to do in our world today, and I am pleased that my understanding of healing allows me to take part.

And here is where Marissa’s words touched me with my current cancer diagnosis.  I have cited before affirmations from the  Health Journey Guided Imagery by Bellruth Naparstek.  Since Marissa’s sermon, an affirmation that has taken on new meaning, with some qualification on the self-reliance implication is:

More and More I can understand that I can heal myself and live or I can heal myself and die, my physical condition is not an indication of my wholeness.

In a couple of hours, I will have another CAT Scan to see the physical status of my cancer.  Tomorrow is Mardi Gras.  Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, and the date for the next appointment with my oncologist.  I am pleased to know now that my healing today is not dependent on the CAT Scan results.

Cheap vs. Costly Grace in Recovery

In my last post I noted that in The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. In our School for Contemplative Living group this week, we asked “which of these eight pillars resonates most with you.” In reviewing the book, the sections on the pillars of perspective, acceptance and gratitude contained the most underlines and column notes in my copy.  This focus is consistent with how I perceive life as a recovering alcoholic with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  I can explain very sincerely, intentionally, and with meaning why these pillars are integral to my daily existence.

But then . . . I felt a certain whack on the side of the head on the other four pillars.  I got caught up short when weighing the pillars of forgiveness, humility, compassion, and generosity by the same sincerity, intentionality and meaning scale.  The analogy that came to mind was that of cheap vs. costly grace as explained by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is a baptism without the discipline of community . . . Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of people go and sell with joy everything they have . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 44-45.

(Bonhoeffer wrote his treatise on ethics while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for his role in a foiled attempt to assassinate Hitler.  He died shortly before Allied Forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer has good street creds with me as someone who practiced what he preached.)

I found his cheap grace analogous to much of how I can live forgiveness.  For example the 9th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous offers that we “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  Over the years I have made lists, personal visits and written amend letters.  I am careful not to include any “but” statements, only clean up my side of the street and not worry about the other person’s side.  I know that often times, those amends are rote, because I know that I need to do them – it is the forgiveness without the repentance or community of which Bonhoeffer speaks.

In the same way with compassion and generosity, I can serve in the soup kitchens, make the charitable contributions, speak out and defend the refugees, and so forth.  But these acts too can become rote responses with little personal investment of true self beyond the material and mechanical.

Again from the Book of Joy:

“One of the differences between empathy and compassion is that while empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.  As the Dalai Lams has described it, if we can see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.” pp. 259

I do not intend this post as an exercise in self-flagellation.  But in the same way that I view my AA recovery program as a continual process and not a single event, I find the eight pillars of joy are best approached in the same way.  I know that if I continue to work the 12 Steps of the AA program, that process enhances my recovery.  In the same way, I believe if I continue to examine and am mindful of my forgiveness, humility, compassion and the other pillars, that process enhances my joyful living and my ability to share that joy.  In the same way that I am a recovering alcoholic and not recovered, I continue to seek a life with more meaning and joy.  Everything I know about living is that if I continue to be active and seek, I will continue to find and to grow.  What an incredible blessing and opportunity!