On The Brink of Everything

I distinctly remember two years before I retired, my wife Emma said to me, “What are you going to do when you don’t have all those work emails to respond to all day?”  For about five minutes, I was terrorized by the truth of her statement.  But then, I actively began thinking about and planning my post-retirment life.  Today, exactly two years into my retirement, the title of Parker Palmer’s new book On The Brink of Everything precisely describes how I view my life today.

But life has not really gone according to my retirement plan.  As my retirement fling, I intended to spend 12 weeks in Peru during the summer (Peruvian winter) of 2017.  A serious bike wreck that spring cut my trip in half – and I was in considerable pain most of the time I was into Peru.  Into 2017 I had several field and teaching projects lined up that were abandoned with my cancer diagnosis, followed by a heart attack.  I spent less time at my wife’s store working/crafting and more time at Touro Infirmary in treatment.

But today, I am able to bring my experience, strength, and hope to my evolving life – and recognize, I am truly on the brink of everything.  Here is an example: I am a strong believer in the Abrahamic tradition of welcoming the stranger and radical hospitality.  I am disappointed that my fatigue precludes me from many activities around refugee support in Louisiana today.  I anticipate joining with the local Grannies Respond group in the near future and meet refugees traveling through New Orleans at the Greyhound Station.  However, today, from the comfort of my home, I am able to help coördinate a social media and fundraising campaign to support the work – something in which I have skills and there is a desperate need.

Similarly, I suspect that my work in the field with climate extremes are over whether in Peru or the U.S.  But I am skilled and enjoy developing the digital presence and overall coordination for cultural heritage work of Culture and Community in Casma, Peru, an organization I helped launch two years ago.

My gardens have certainly thrived this summer and Emma and I are particularly excited about travel plans with our new directions.  Not to mention the books to read, meals to cook, and so much more.

Truly, the possibility in life today is on the brink of everything.  It does not matter whether I live for another six weeks, six months, or six years, the brink is still there.

I am blessed and grateful for these opportunities on the journey toward true self.

Grateful for 34 Years of Sobriety

Thirty-four years ago today I walked into the Care Unit Detox Center in Cincinnati, Ohio to begin a 30-day inpatient alcohol/drug treatment program.  I have remained sober since that day.  In Alcoholics Anonymous, anniversaries are celebrated as a milestone.  Over the years, the significance of these events has hit me differently.  Just a few years ago, when living much more on autopilot, I completely forgot the anniversary until a few days after the fact.  Today, the date looms much larger in my mind.

I have posted many times how my years of recovery from alcoholism proved a perfect preparation for living with cancer over the past year when the speculation about my cancer probabilities turned into a firm diagnosis.  I recollect well-being told I had 3-6 months to live and wondering how to handle that.

The one-day-at-a-time lesson of AA kicked in fully last August as I sat in Audubon Park thinking of what I would miss most.  I thought about the time spent with my wife Emma, our rescue dog Grace, riding my bike, gardening, sitting in the Park reading, and so forth.  While sitting on that park bench It hit me – I best get busy with those things now while I am able.

Fast forward one year to today – although imperfectly, I have not wasted away the last year in dwelling in the problem.  I spent a good bit more time at Touro Infirmary than I planned, but I also had many fantastic experiences in that process.

Emma and I set priorities that are going in the right direction to enhance whatever time we have together on this earth.

My path toward what Thomas Merton refers to as “true self” has produced many wonderful and unexpected vistas thanks to my church home at Rayne Memorial United Methodist and the School for Contemplative Living.

I knocked off some “bucket list” visits like the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, and a handful of other places.  I have continued my “institutionally retired” professional career with many rewarding experiences.

I truly tried to live into the solution and not dwell in the problem of my disease.  I attribute this perspective as the primary reason in my surpassing all of my doctors’ expectations.  Physically, mentally, and spiritually, I feel better than I did one year ago – even two years ago for that matter.

As true for everyone, I don’t know if I will be alive on August 4th of 2019 to celebrate my 35th Anniversary in sobriety.  I firmly believe that were in not for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the starting point for my personal resurrection, I would not have received the gift of sobriety.  I am truly grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps of Recovery for the last 34 years of sobriety and each day yet to come on the road to happy destiny.

 

 

Gratitude as a We Thing

My late buddy, Buddy.

My Wednesday morning School for Contemplative Living group is continuing the study of Grateful by Diana Butler Bass, a book about which I previously posted.  The title of the assigned chapter this week is Grateful Together.  Without reading more than those two words, I got to thinking in a new direction –

I thought of the group that I have met with each Wednesday morning for the last 18 months.  I thought about each of the 8 -10 individuals in the group and how I met most of them through the Wednesday morning meeting.  I thought about how my experience with these fellow pilgrims greatly enhances my own life, not just as a collective group, but as individuals as well.  I mentally went around the group circle and was able to readily articulate in my head how the relationship with each of these individuals contributes to my total being today.  That is, were any one of these individuals not in our Wednesday morning group, my life would be less than it is today.

I then expanded the circle to include my wife, family, friends, and colleagues over the years.  With each individual I explored how the relationship is integral to who I am today.  I thought of a get-together last week with a half-dozen former co-workers from when I worked at American Tool and was active in the United Steelworkers of America over 35 years ago.  We had not seen each other since we were laid off in the economic downturn of the early 1980s.  While we sat and reminisced last week, I thought of how my relationship with those specific individuals forged a perspective on community responsibility that I carry with me to this day.

Grateful Together goes beyond just the we when speaking of a 12-Step meeting of AA, church congregation, disaster relief team, or other group.  Rather, I am grateful for and acknowledge the value of each individual (human and canine) with whom I exist in this luminous web of life.

Who are you grateful for today?

Self-Compassion and Cancer

Painting by Emma Connolly

I am currently enrolled in the eight-week Cultivating Compassion course offered through the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  The course leader is Dr. William Thiele, the School’s Founding Director and author of the book Monks in the World.  William went through a year-long Compassion Cultivation Training program at Stanford University in preparation to lead the local sessions.  Dr. Thupten Jinpa at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford developed the course.  More about the course development can be found in Dr. Jinpa’s book A Fearless Heart.  Dr. Jinpa is otherwise known for being the official translator for The Dalai Lama since 1985.

The course approach to compassion convinced me to spend my Sunday afternoons for the next couple of months in the seminar setting.  Dr. Thupten defines compassion in A Fearless Heart (2015:xxii) as “. . . a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”  Also, I was intrigued that one session would be devoted to self-compassion.

The self-compassion session took place this past Sunday. In the session, William encouraged the participants to consider a personal circumstance or event that caused us to be filled with doubt and self-blame.  I was somewhat surprised that what immediately came to my mind was my stage 4 cancer diagnosis of one year ago.  In fact, the session brought me to view an aspect of the cancer diagnosis I had not discussed with anyone, but only internalized.

Last year, during the initial speculation on the primary source of the cancer, I immediately focused on my complicity in the disease:

  • As I was a cigarette smoker from the age of 10 until my mid-40s, I felt assured that I had lung cancer.  That proved not to be the case – my lungs are in great shape.
  • My general practitioners first guess was colon cancer and I immediately felt guilt for procrastinating and never having a colonoscopy despite the recommendation of my general practitioner 15 years ago.  However, my colonoscopy last August revealed a cancer-free GI system.
  • Next my oncologist ruminated that perhaps the cancer originated in my liver based on some blood test results.  I immediately then experienced the shame and self-blame of my years of alcohol and drug abuse.  However, subsequent PET and CAT scans showed my liver is free of any cancer as well.

Another exercise in today’s session was to respond to “If anything were possible,

  • What would I love to find in my life?
  • How would I want to grow as a person?
  • What would I want to offer the world?”

An immediate and legitimate response to the first question seemingly would be to deal with my health issues.  But with a bit of reflection, I thought otherwise, responding to the questions, respectively as follows:

  • for my thoughts and actions to align with a direction toward my true self
  • to prioritize how I expend my time and resources toward that alignment
  • my true self

These response make sense to me when I consider the popular Biblical adage, (Mark 8:36) “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”

True self has been the trajectory of my recovery for the past three decades – coming to terms with what I am truly called to be and do in all of my relationships with self, family, friends, and the world.  I cannot imagine having traveled that path without my road out of addiction.  I expect that my current health issues will provide me the same opportunities for growth and direction toward that true self.  Being self-compassionate clearly includes fully embracing those possibilities on that journey.

A New Look at Gratitude

I have posted many times before about the importance of gratitude in my recovery.  Having an “attitude of gratitude” is a platitude that I recollect hearing quite often during my 30-day detox program and in my first AA meetings over three decades ago.  I am grateful for my recovery from alcoholism, a better than expected cancer prognosis, and a strong reason to get out of bed every morning.  I touched on this concept of gratitude in my last post.  Today, a part of my morning ritual is writing down three things for which I am grateful.

In our School for Contemplative Living group we are reading Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass that articulates an understanding of gratitude I find quite important.  She writes (p. xxiv):

There is, however, an alternative structure of gratefulness, one that holds out the possibility of spiritual and ethical transformation – that of gift and response.  In this mode, gifts exist before benefactors.  The universe is a gift.  Life is a gift.  Air, light, soil, and water are gifts.  Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts.  We live on a gifted planet.  Everything we need is here, with us.  We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.

I see this understanding of gratitude not from the personal circumstances of my life, but from life itself.  Viewing life, the universe, natural resources as gifts freely given is true grace.  Butler Bass continues (p. 20-21):

Gifts are not commodities.  Gifts are the nature of the universe itself, given by God or the natural order.  Grace reminds us that every good thing is a gift – that somehow the rising of the sun and being alive are indiscriminate daily offerings to us – and then we understand all benefactors are also beneficiaries and all beneficiaries can be benefactors . . . We do not really give gifts.  We recognize gifts, we receive them and we pass them on . . . We all share them.

In the Jewish tradition the Prophets held the people accountable for this gift.  For example, the Prophet Amos speaks less from the perspective of social justice, but our responsibility for the stewardship mandated by God for the earth in the Genesis creation story.

What will we do with these freely given gifts we all share without regard for ethnicity, gender, national origin?  How can we express our gratitude?  As stewards for the natural resources of our earth, how can we express our gratitude to this freely given gift that allows us to live and thrive?

Butler Bass notes (p. 22) that:

. . . if gratitude is mutual reliance upon (instead of payback for) shared gifts, we awaken to a profound awareness of our interdependence.  Dependence may enslave the soul, but interdependence frees us.

This interdependence is the very essence of what I have learned over the years in 12 Step Recovery.  To extend this interdependence to the world stage, gratitude will require us to build bridges instead of walls, welcome the stranger with the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah instead of detention centers, share in the bounty of resources, knowledge, and technology instead of selling to the highest bidder.  These are challenges to extend my gratitude beyond platitudes and lists.

Our interdependence is appropriate to think about as in the U.S. we celebrate Independence Day.

Having a Reason to be Alive in Recovery

Painting by Emma Connolly of Grace and me in our backyard

Over the years, on many occasions I asked “Why Me?” The question was not meant from a woe is me perspective, but from one of gratitude.  Examples include:

  • I have over 30 years of recovery from a debilitating physical and mental obsession with alcohol.  Long-term sobriety is greatly enhanced in those who remain abstinent for five years.  For many years, I struggled to even put together 30 days.  Why did I make it when so many others do not?
  • My oncologist continues to be amazed that I am doing as well as I am with a stage 4 cancer.  Last August, the prognosis was possibly death by Christmas or in six months.  Why I have surpassed these odds?

I wrote previously about the research of Kelly Turner and have since read her book Radical Remission.  A strong reason to live is one of the nine points Dr. Turner found for those who defy the normative expectation for stage 4 cancer diagnoses.  She distinguishes this reason as different from fighting to live or being afraid to die.

Her results resonate with me in my current cancer diagnosis.  In much of what I have written about cancer over the past months I note how the one-day-at-a-time approach of Alcoholics Anonymous has proven crucial in my life today.  Further, I know that were it not for my sobriety over the past three decades, I would have been dead long ago.

An exercise in Radical Remission suggests generating two lists.  The first is a list of activities one would do if they had an unlimited amount of money and perfect health.  The second list of activities is if one had their current financial situation, good health, but knew they would be dead in 1.5 years.  The “correct” answer is to have the second list overlap with the first.  I was pleased mine did.  My second list includes:

  • Take three months to ride my bicycle from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to New Orleans.
  • Emma and I take multiple cross-country road trips and spend more time exploring together.
  • I continue to blog my story as my unique contribution to share.
  • Complete two writing projects I am working on.
  • Continue gardening and working around the house.
  • Continue activity with the School for Contemplative Living and my faith community.

With the exception of the Mississippi River bike ride, I am currently working on all the other list items.  The long-distance bike ride is something that will take some creative planning.  But come September, Emma and I will embark on a two-week back roads meander reminiscent of our first trip together 20 years ago.  All of the other items on the list are what get me out of bed every morning.

To a very large extent, what I dream of doing is what I actually do. This might prove to be the answer to the “Why Me” question.  Since walking into the detox center in 1984, I have maintained a belief and hope that I have a reason to live and I have tried, quite imperfectly, to live into that hope.

Today I came across a blog post I wrote 5 years ago, long before I had any thought of cancer.  The title of the post was Living Sober Till I Am 94, One Day at a Time. The age came from a life expectancy test of some sort that I took.  But the essence of the post is having the reason to want to live that long:

 I didn’t think about how long I was going to live.  I got to be too busy living.  As we get closer to “retirement” my wife and I talk about that next part of our lives.  We will do anything but retire.  I have a bunch of projects lined up and my wife is already working on her art/consignment business  and plans with our children and grandchildren down in New Orleans. . . today I learned that my life expectancy is 94.  What I learned today seems less the accuracy of the measure but more, that living and living fully is what sobriety is about.  Had I not gotten sober at 32, I seriously doubt that I would have seen 40.  Staying sober one day at a time, the possibilities are without limit!

I am grateful and blessed to be able to live into my reasons to be alive today!

A Quick Health Update – Keep Moving Forward!

Okra from our backyard kingdom!

Here is a quick health update.  The results of my lymph node biopsy revealed for the first time a malignancy outside of my bones.  Here is what that all means:

  • Additional testing of the malignancy is in process to determine the type of appropriate treatment.  Based on the results of the testing an alternative to chemotherapy may be the suitable treatment.
  • I will have another scan in 2 months to develop a baseline for the amount and pace of malignancy growth.  An unknown factor is how long the malignancy has been present, though the appearance seems very slow-growing.  The next scan, coupled with the possible chemotherapy alternative solutions, will determine the next phase of treatment.
  • My oncologist remains amazed that the only real downside I continue to feel from the cancer is increased fatigue.  Otherwise, I feel better today than I did two years ago.  We discussed that despite the near 100 degree heat, I am riding my bike (early and late in the day) for 5 mile plus trips and my appetite continues to improve.  (Tonight Emma got me two pieces of fried chicken from Joey K’s – marking my first fried food in a couple of months – and I enjoyed it!)

In sum, the visit to the oncologist today was one of those good news/bad news experiences.  We discussed my plans for the immediate future as I posted in my recently recast professional blog.  Since publishing that blog:

  • Yesterday I spent several hours at the New Orleans Public Library scanning microfiche of the New Orleans writer Robert Tallant.  Today I transcribed his notebook that contained early ideas for his Mrs. Candy novels of the 1940s.
  • My colleague Ana Rea and I mapped out a timeframe and outline for our mentor/mentee project.
  • Participated in an excellent discussion with resulting actions on the Old and New Testament Biblical mandates to feed the hungry, here in New Orleans.
  • And of course, irrigated the crops, cut the grass, and otherwise contemplated our backyard kingdom.
  • Tonight Emma and I began to discuss our two-week road trip we will take around Labor Day.

One year ago I was in excruciating pain with a wholly unknown medical future.  The past year exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.

Life is good and I am blessed.