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.

 

 

Is It Sadness or Acceptance in Recovery?

This past year, although I roll out of bed in the morning a bit less rested and slower, I continue to start my day with positive and affirming practices.  First, I write my morning pages – a sort of stream of consciousness where I record my dreams if I remember them, or reflect on life, most often on a very positive note.  Next I write a notecard to someone – to catch up with a friend or thank someone for their service or other action.  I then go to an Alcoholics Anonymous Facebook page and post three things that I am grateful for and scan and comment on other posts to the group.  All of the above takes 30-45 minutes and starts my day on a very positive note.

And then something hit me.

This past Wednesday my School for Contemplative Living meeting opened with an “analytic mediation” instead of our usual centering prayer.  The former process is thought focused as opposed to the thought-less centering prayer.

At one point, the analytic meditation suggested to focus on a point of sadness in our lives and our response to the issue.  In discussing the meditation afterward, I commented that the instruction caught me by surprise.  I had been quite intentional over the past year to focus on solutions, opportunities, lessons, and wisdom that could come from my stage 4 cancer diagnosis and my recent heart attack.  I intentionally corrected folks who said I was “dying” and said that I was “living” today.  Recently, I focused on the lesson I could learn from the heart attack, and how grateful I was that it occurred while I was at the hospital for an unrelated issue.  My positive outlook makes complete sense and flows from my over 30 years of recovery from alcohol addiction.

So, I am not certain about this sadness thing.

But in the past two years, my overall physical stamina has notably decreased, though today I was able to buy lumber and bags of soil and build another eight-foot raised herb bed for our front yard.  I then weeded the backyard gardens.  However, less than one year ago, I could not even lift my duffel bag off of the airport luggage carousel when arriving home from Peru.

Until one year ago I owned three bicycles.  I gave away my mountain bike a few months ago because I knew that my bones cannot really withstand the predictable wipeouts I experience on single track dirt paths.  I now think it might be time for me to get rid of my road bike as the days of century rides are likely past.  Instead, my remaining Trek hybrid is ideal for the 10-20 mile jaunts about town these days.  I accept that I will not likely bike the Great River Road from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to our New Orleans home. But I am not certain that these realities make me sad.   I am grateful today as I ride through the streets of New Orleans and smell the jasmine and honeysuckle in bloom – a scent that fills me with revelry of the beauty of creation.

With or without cancer, at the age of 65, my physical, mental, and spiritual life will continue to evolve.  With or without cancer, I discussed with Emma that when I am unable to get out of bed to sit on the back porch, then it is time to stop whatever treatments I am receiving.  I don’t know that I will be sad at that point.  I have a hope, based in faith, that I will be grateful for the wonderful experience I have had on this earth, living life on life’s terms.

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!

2018 and a New Perspective in Cancer & Recovery

I write this on December 31st, after a day of tying up loose ends, relaxation, and reflection.  The tying up loose ends primarily involved preparing for the hard freeze over the next couple of days.  I harvested our winter crops of lemons, grapefruit, bok choy, spinach, annual herbs, and brought in our new fruit trees we have yet to plant.  Relaxation included New Year’s Eve dinner with Emma, watching a movie, and reading.

Reflection occupied a good bit of the day. I had several health challenges in 2017 – an increase in my chronic back pain, a serious bike wreck, and a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  As posted on this blog, I spent a good bit of time coming to terms with these new realities.

I commented often how my three decades as a recovering alcoholic prepared me well for dealing with the health challenges, particularly the cancer diagnosis.  I have new lessons on living with an attitude of gratitude, one-day-at-a-time, and into the solution and not dwelling in the problem.

I did a lot of growing up, learning, introspection, and prioritizing in 2017.  Besides family and friends, I benefited from the insights of my faith community at Rayne Memorial UMC and the School for Contemplative Living.  A fellow contemplative noted the synchronicity of the gifts of community coming at the precise time I faced new life directions.

Today I note a subtle but substantive shift in my perspective as we enter 2018.  The best way I can articulate the shift is to compare the past six months as a time of intensive study and growth akin to my experiences during graduate school.  Upon completing my formal academic coursework, I did not stop the lifelong process of being a student and learning.  But upon graduation, I did make a shift where I began to apply in the real world what I learned in my formal training.

In 2018, I want to move from understanding my cancer diagnosis to fully applying and living into the solution.  In so doing, there is a subtle but substantive shift in perspective.  Instead of thinking, “I plan to do X but have contingency plans if I start chemo, etc. etc.” I will shift to “It is reasonable for me to commit to doing X.”  This latter perspective holds true whether I live for another 10 weeks, 10 months, 10 years, or longer.  In fact, no one, whether a 21-year-old or a 65-year-old has a guarantee of living one minute longer than I.

I am blessed to have the lived as a recovering alcoholic for the past three decades and to have a wonderful group of contemplatives to explore life with today.  I am committed to a 2018 that will be a time of continuing meaning and fulfillment.

Being Alive for Christmas, 2017

As I walked to church yesterday I recalled this past August when I first received my cancer diagnosis.  A doctor said I could be dead by Christmas.  An oncologist advised that I have a back-up if I planned to teach my scheduled graduate seminar this past fall semester.  Fast forward to today, I taught the seminar, turned in the final grades, and now, on Christmas Day, I am still very much alive.

In my last post I wrote about my Early Christmas Gift – a prognosis considerably more optimistic than back in August.  The past five months have been a journey of discovery.  Here is an affirmation that sums up much of my thinking today:

I tell this cancer these things.  Thank you for teaching me to stop and listen.  Thank you for reminding me what is truly important.  You can go now.  I know that I have things to do, gifts to give, purposes to accomplish.  I require a healthy working body for this.  – Belleruth Naparstek, Health Journey Guided Imagery to Fight Cancer

Toward that understanding, over these past five months:

  • I am considerably more mindful and intentional of how I spend my time.  I do not rush through process, but savor and enjoy each experience more and more.
  • To resolve my overextended existence, I say “No” more often and no longer chase after folks unwilling to respect our mutual time.
  • Today, quality time with my wife takes priority in all things.
  • My standard line that “I am saving that for good” is meaningless as today is as good as it will get.
  • The “forgivability of the error” has never been more pressing when it comes to taking care of myself physically, mentally, spiritually.
  • The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the basis of my sobriety, are as relevant and applicable to my life today as in 1984 when I walked into a detox center.  I share my experience, strength, and hope with others.

As well, over the past five months my attitude of gratitude has deepened:

  • to my wife, Emma, who has been my best friend and mate for nearly 20 years.
  • to my church community at Rayne Memorial UMC where I am spiritually fed every week.
  • to my fellow pilgrims in the School for Contemplative Living with whom I explore and experience the wisdom of the mystics of the past and present.
  • to my colleagues, students, and friends from across the world who have shared their support, prayers, greeting cards, or visited me here in New Orleans.
  • and I am most grateful for the opportunity to walk this earth for the past 65 years along a road toward true self.

So, I am very much alive today.  I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, either in terms of cancer or a myriad of other ways to test my mortality.  But I do know the affirmation I quoted in a previous blog post:

I will get well not out of the fear of dying but out of the joy of living.

is where the action is at for me today.  I look forward to planting and then harvesting the satsuma and lime trees Emma and I gave each other to celebrate our recent wedding anniversary, and all the other experiences that are part of my joy in living today.

Fear of Dying vs Joy of Living

 

More and more, I will get well not out of the fear of dying but out of the joy of living.

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. – Belleruth Naparstek

Lately, I have thought more about these affirmations from the  Health Journey Guided Imagery to Fight Cancer.  Today they express the same sentiment as when I got sober years ago.  When active in my alcohol addiction, I knew I was dying a little bit more every day.  When I finally checked into a detox unit, I did so not from a fear of dying, rather, I saw a glimmer of hope in being able to live.  The past three decades proved a phenomenal witness to that hope.

I have come to the same understanding today with my cancer diagnosis.  I discussed with Emma, my wife, that I do not fear death – in fact, if it gets to the point where I can no longer get out of bed to sit on the back porch, then I am no longer interested in treatments.  And today, I seem a long way from that point.  My back and neck are less painful than one year ago.  I am finishing a round of stomach infection antibiotics that restored my appetite and relieved a good bit of stomach upset.  An endoscopy procedure this past week recovered tissue that might prove useful in developing a genetic-based treatment for my cancer instead of the eventual chemotherapy.

So yes, life is good today.

I realize the goodness is the reason for some of my pushback from the seemingly endless array of medical tests.  I was in a funk the couple days before the recent endoscopy procedure.  When my blood was drawn a week ago, I had a visceral reaction of disgust at being poked at one more time.  But I know the process is necessary.

I seem a bit of a schizophrenic these days.  There is the medical end of things.  And then there is riding my bike to the medical appointments; my Wednesday morning School for Contemplative Living group where we practice centering prayer and are now reading The Book of Joy; my Friday morning book discussion of It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again with a group of dear friends; spending time with Emma at our shop and home; serving the underserved at the Open Table; and much more, including sitting on the back porch with my dog writing this post as a steady rain pours on my winter crops in the back yard.

So yes, it is a joy in living that has sustained me through years of recovery from my alcohol addiction and today is my hope of a life with Stage 4 cancer.

Hope or Optimism in Recovery

 

We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic.  Now, hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction.  I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.  Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable. . . To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass . . . Hope is also nurtured by relationship, by community, whether that community is a literal one or one fashioned from the long memory of human striving . . . Despair turns us inwards.  Hope sends us into the arms of others.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, p. 122, The Book of Joy

We are reading The Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in my weekly School for Contemplative Living meeting.   The above quote resonated with me in my recovery from alcoholism and recent cancer diagnosis.

In recovery, I consider myself a “glass is half-full” person who aspires to live into the solution and not the problem.  For the most part, that is true since I walked into a detox center a bunch of years ago.  But I realize that my outlook has evolved over the years.  Perhaps some 20 years ago, the concept of hope entered more into my daily life.  In my gratitude lists, hope is always included.  In liturgical worship, when the congregation is invited to speak their gratitudes my list is “life, my spouse, and hope” and quite consistently.

The Archbishop’s quote solidifies in my mind what hope is in my sobriety.  After a time in recovery, I came to know and have faith that with the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I could remain sober.  I know that today to the marrow of my bones.  I have had no desire to use alcohol or drugs in over three decades.  Today, not drinking or drugging is the easy part of recovery.

Hope comes through living life on life’s terms or “practicing these principles in all our affairs” as noted in the 12th Step.  For me, that road in sobriety has never been a linear path, but I do hope that my overall direction will continue forward.

My recent cancer diagnosis brings another dimension to the understanding of hope.  Although I certainly do hope that my cancer will not progress, my faith is that if I do the next indicated step, use the many tools at my disposal, I will continue to live fully and take advantage of the opportunity to make choices every day in how I choose to live.  That is my hope today.  My time as a recovering alcoholic has shown me that in community I can have that faith and not wallow alone in despair.

I am blessed and life is good.