Tattoos on the Heart

The past few days were a bit trying.  I began my second regimen of chemo last week and hoped for fewer side effects.  In fact, the effects are less.  But I really wanted no effects to get my spirit and body back to a “normal” function.  Though nausea is greatly reduced, I have pain that feels like stomach cramps every time I move.  Yet, I sleep well. I reflect that just before the last time I started chemo my stomach pains were so great I could only sleep lying on my back.  In essence, physically, I am grateful to be in a better space this time around – 5 days off the chemo pump.

I need to ask Emma about these things so that she can remind me that yes, 5-days off the chemo pump the first time, I slept all day.  Yesterday, Emma drove me to church, I made the rounds, and walked home.  Still, I spent much of my day in a state of lethargy.  I know I need to eat to keep up my weight, but the Girl Scout Cookies were probably not ideal for my stomach – more pain.  I spent the better part of yesterday doing stuff, trying to be either productive, or just restful, but with a stomach in knots, until . . .

. . . I picked up a different book to read – Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion..  The novel I had been reading and my “contemplative” texts were coming off as just words.  I recently watched an interview of Boyle by Sarah Silverman on her comedy show.  He talked about his 3 decades of work with gangs in LA and the founding of Homeboy Industries.  Click here to watch the interview.

I began reading Boyle’s book the first ime when the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans invited him to come and speak.  Fresh from listening to the Silverman interview of Boyle, I picked the book up again.  The experience was like I had never read a word before.  Here is a dialogue Boyle records with one of his homies who calls him on the phone at 1:00 AM (pp. 31):

“Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me.

“I gotta ask you a question.  You know how I’ve always seen you as my father – ever since I was a little kid?  Well, I hafta ask you a question.”

Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I  . . . been . . . your son?”

“Oh , hell, yeah,” I say.

“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”

Now his voices becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbbing.  “Then . . . I will be . . . your son.  And you . . . will be my father.  And nothing can separate us, right?”

“That’s right.”

In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father.  He discovered that he is a son worth having.

 

The book is filled with such experience, strength, and hope.  It was not until today I noted the subtitle of the book – The Power of Boundless Compassion.  In this era of fear-stoked hysteria on caravans, criminal elements, MS-13, ad nauseum, the very direct experience at Homeboy Industries demonstrates a better success rate than any wall/fence to secure the southern border as a permeable and reciprocal port of entry and exit. The words of American poet Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty reflect this truth I learned in 5th grade civics class:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Oh, and funny thing, but my stomach feels much better.

A Christmas I Was Not Supposed to See

Our family at The Fly getting ready for the holiday.

In August of 2017, my gastro doctor told me that I likely had three to six months to live.  My oncologist suggested I get a back-up for the fall course I was teaching as I might not make it to the end of the semester.

So here I am 16 months later, feeling considerably better than I did back then.  I am riding my bike regularly, working in the yard, and going on a cruise in January in preparation for a longer stint of travel this spring.

My four rounds of chemotherapy in the fall were very successful.  My monthly x-geva injection has stabilized the bone deterioration of my metastasized cancer.  I have received excellent medical care from Touro Infirmary.  Now, my oncologist will not offer a prognosis for me as he notes that I have outlived all expectations to date.

But there is much more than the medical and physical to my being alive.  I have reasons to get up every day, one day at a time.  That understanding from my three decades of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous has proven absolutely key.  I thought about this when working in the garden over the past couple of weeks.  We had good crops this year and we are looking to expand in 2019.  As I have cleared for new beds and hacked through some of our tropical backyard jungle, I initially thought if my future chemo proved less effective and I was not able to eat again, then the garden produce might not be of use.  But then I thought too that we have family and friends with whom we already share our crops, and if we could not eat the future crops, we would just share more.  I thought too that our gardens are a small step we can take to support our earth in this time of environmental devastation and our government’s inaction.  But mostly, I thought, today I am able to work in the garden – I cannot predict what tomorrow will bring any more than when told in the summer of 2017 I had 3 to 6 months to live.

And there is more than one-day-at-a-time to my continued health:

  • My wife and best friend Emma has stood by me through the good and bad, particularly in the last year.
  • My faith community at Rayne Memorial is a key to my spiritual path and my cancer treatment.  I have many friends and opportunities for service that feed me physically and spiritually.
  • My weekly meeting with the School for Contemplative Living has led to friendships and a spiritual path that have led me down roads that I would never find alone.
  • The book studies that began at Emma’s store on the Artists Way and now moved into other creative directions also provide a community and insights to grow with.

A couple of weeks ago, Emma and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary.  Tomorrow, we will celebrate a Christmas that I was not supposed to see.  Now it is not so much a matter of just being alive, but also to live a life of meaning.  Being able to do so is the best Christmas gift I could receive or give.

I am truly blessed and grateful.

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.

 

 

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.

Another Day, Another Procedure

Today, in a couple of hours, I will have a laparoscopic procedure and biopsy to try and determine the primary source of the cancer that has metastasized throughout my bones.  The procedure was supposed to happen two months ago, but I had a heart attack during that pre-op testing.

I am less than pleased about the need for another surgery.  I reflected on my contradictory reactions to the different medical procedures I have undergone over the past year.  I thoroughly enjoy going to my cardiac rehab sessions, now three days per week.  When I was having physical rehabilitation last year, I enthusiastically attended those sessions.  The dietitians at Touro Infirmary provide recommendations that improve my quality of life, immensely.  The monthly blood test and x-geva injection that stabilize bone loss are a highlight of my medical treatment.

On a mental and spiritual level, I know that my weekly meetings of the School for Contemplative Living, Enneagram Study, attendance at Rayne Memorial, and other small groups play a big part in my well-being.  Along with bike riding, gardening, and a relaxed professional role, I feel relatively normal.  My biggest physical symptoms are fatigue and controllable stomach issues.

Beyond the two-week recovery interruption to my regular schedule today’s surgery will cause, I know part of my negative reaction is a certain denial that I have a serious disease/medical condition.  I am inclined to leave well enough alone – no news is good news – why do I need to know the primary source of my cancer if everything is rolling along better than my oncologist’s best expectations?

The best place I am at today is just trusting the process, in the same way I have trusted the process in my recovery from alcoholism for the past three decades.  I know that just working the first three steps and never moving onto the introspection of the fourth step would not have allowed me long-term sobriety.  The ignorance is bliss approach does not work.  So, in a couple of hours I will once again be sedated, opened up, and explored.

When I think back to my prognosis last August, I was supposed to be either dead or in the final stages of cancer by last Christmas.  Neither of those events came to pass.

In a couple of days, and maybe even by tomorrow morning, I will be sitting on the back porch looking out on my earthly kingdom.  In a few days after that, I hope to weed and water my gardens again.

I am grateful and blessed in my life today.

An Anniversary Celebration, of Sorts

This week I celebrate an anniversary of sorts.  One year ago I was riding in the bike lane at Audubon Park when someone I disparagingly refer to as a “Tulane frat boy” lost control of his skate board while doing jumps.  The board hit my bike and I went down, hard.  I knew things were not okay.  As I lay on the ground, my immediate thought was that I was supposed to leave for Peru in three weeks – that was going to be a problem.  After they saw I was not dead, the frat boy and his buddies took off, not wanting to hang around to take any responsibility.  Someone else passing by helped me get back on my bike. I shakily peddled home, got to the front steps of our house and collapsed.  I hobbled around on a walker and then a cane for several weeks.

And what a year it has been!

My first medical visits were not promising.  The bone scans and blood tests did not look good – something else might be going on besides the impact of the wreck.  My primary care physician recommended additional tests to rule out cancer – but that could wait until I got back from Peru.  I ended up leaving for Peru four weeks later than planned, making my way through the airport with a cane. I was physically miserable for the six weeks I spent In Peru.  When I returned to New Orleans in early August I could not lift my duffel bag off the baggage return conveyor at the airport.

Then tests and more tests, and by late August my oncologist’s diagnosis was a stage 4 cancer metastasized throughout my bones with an unknown primary source. Three to six months of life reamining was the first prognosis.  I won’t rehash the next few months of medical process that I blogged about, beginning here.

By February of this year, six months after the initial diagnosis, with the exception of fatigue, I remained without the manifestations that cancer was supposed to bring.  My oncologist referred to the lack of my cancer spreading as a real “head scratcher.”

Then in mid-March of this year I had a heart attack.  And now in mid-May, I am in cardiac rehab and living with my somewhat ambiguous my cancer.

So how do I celebrate this one year anniversary?

  • Though I hate to admit it, the “Tulane frat boy” did me a favor by getting me to a doctor to begin the testing that revealed the cancer.  My monthly x-geva injections have stabilized the bone loss and brought all blood indicators to normal.  I have less back and neck pain than I routinely experienced two years ago.
  • My cancer prognosis remains uncertain at this point.  Taking all things into consideration, I feel good today, but realize that can all come crashing down pretty quickly, as I wrote last week.  The same is true for the heart attack, cardiac rehab, and whatever that future holds.
  • Emma and I reprioritized our lives, not putting off till tomorrow what we are able to do today.
  • Of importance, I continue to explore life’s existential questions and meet fellow pilgrims on that journey.  I particularly enjoy my small group meetings, whether the Enneagram discussion that Emma hosts at her shop each week, the Sunday Wilderness class at Rayne Memorial UMC, or the weekly gathering of friends in the School for Contemplative Living.
  • I have a strong and complete “attitude of gratitude” for my 30 plus years of sobriety that brought me to today.  I consider the folks I have met through my treatments at Touro Infirmary, the outstanding professionals (particularly the RNs) and patients facing the same issues as me, as a recent gift on that road.
  • Asking myself “What matters most?” as I live  each day takes on added meaning.  Today the answer mostly had to do with work in our gardens, sharing out our abundance of herbs, and feeling that wonderful New Orleans sun on my back as I planted a bed of wildflowers.

When Emma and I retired to New Orleans we each had plans about how our lives would go.  Substantive portions of those expectations are now revised.  But, as we celebrate this anniversary, we are certain to take the best of those plans with us as we continue on our happy and meaningful road to our true selves.