29 March 2015

A magnificent poem for a grey and rainy Saturday

 Setting Out by Wendell Berry

 Even love must pass through loneliness,
the husbandman become again
the Long Hunter, and set out
not to the familiar woods of home
but to the forest of the night,
the true wilderness, where renewal
is found, the lay of the ground
a premonition of the unknown.
Blowing leaf and flying wren
lead him on. He can no longer be at home,
he cannot return, unless he begin
the circle that first will carry him away.

(day 4)

23 March 2015

Inking over

A year ago today I stared out at a sunset so painfully beautiful that I wept to watch it, my heart overflowing with the delight at being alive and the fear of the chemo which would begin in the morning. My body was coiled and taut, ready for the assault to begin. My curls were still long and soft around my neck. I had no idea what was going to happen next. In the morning I got up, went to the hospital, laid down on the bed, and began the process I hoped would help save my life.

Two weeks ago I found myself in a hospital bed in a very different setting. Melissa and Michael were there at the foot of the bed, as they had been during chemo. And there was a man with a needle beside me. But everything else was different. This was Kakapo Ink, and Roo, my gentle and kind tattoo artist, was about to make his mark.

There was a way these two experiences were eerily similar. I laid back for the nearly three hours of sometimes mild and sometimes biting pain in both cases, both making me a little light headed, a little dizzy.  Both times Michael held my hand, and Melissa cracked jokes from the foot of the bed. This time, though, I was choosing it.

In February I had gone to Kakapo Ink  (a new kind of tattoo parlour devoted to tattoo newbies like me—bright and open and lovely) and had met Roo and Katy who would design this piece for me. With their help, I described what I wanted: a tattoo that would help me reclaim this blank fake breast of mine, something beautiful and delicate that would make me smile rather than frown each time I saw it. Something that symbolized new life and love and hope rather than being a constant symbol of the cancer and loss and fear I have lived with this past year.

Over the course of a month or so, they sent me designs, and I printed them out and showed them around and thought about them hard and sent back feedback and waited for the next design. And then suddenly a few weeks ago, I opened my email and smiled. Yes, that was a design I’d like to wear forever. I’d like that to be a part of my body. (I'm including the picture Katy drew though we had to make some modifications of it once we got it on my three dimensional body--but you can see how pretty it is.)

Now it is.

I talk with my clients sometimes about writing their own story, about picking up the pen and making their own choices. I had never understood this part of the tattoo craze (to be honest, I’ve never understood any part of the tattoo craze) and I had never thought I would come up with a reason to indelibly write on my own body. But every time I catch a glimpse of me in the mirror now, I have a totally different sense of me. I used to shy away from my reflection, seeing myself as scarred, marred, damaged. Now I catch a glimpse and stop and stare. Wow, that’s beautiful I think, again and again. That’s me. That’s not me written by cancer, but me writing over cancer. That’s not me partial and broken but me taking the open space of a vacant lot and cultivating beauty.

This is a beginning of a new chapter for me. I need a hair cut. My book is out (Here's a picture of Keith and me at our book launch and you can order your own copy here Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders). We have a new house. Naomi and I are going to visit universities next month. I have literally inked over the scars of last year with new leaves of possibilities. I wonder what will flower next.

(And in a little coda, two more pieces. First, this from the NYT about life after cancer treatment . A little chilling. And this from Mark’s poetry box, Day 3)

After the Diagnosis
Christian Wiman

No remembering now
When the apple sapling was blown
Almost out of the ground.
No telling how,
With all the other trees around,
It alone was struck.
It must have been luck,
He thought for years, so close
To the house it grew.
It must have been night.
Change is a thing one sleeps through
When young, and he was young.
If there was a weakness in the earth,
A give he went down on his knees
To find and feel the limits of,
There is no longer.
If there was one random blow from above
The way he’s come to know
From years in this place,
The roots were stronger.
Whatever the case,
He has watched this tree survive
Wind ripping at his roof for nights
On end, heats and blights
That left little else alive.
No remembering now…
A day’s changes mean all to him
And all days come down
To one clear pane
Through which he sees
Among all the other trees
This leaning, clenched, unyielding one
That seems cast
In the form of a blast
That would have killed it,
As if something at the heart of things,
And with the heart of things,
Had willed it.

20 March 2015

Lucille Clifton: "Blessing the Boats"

Here is the poem that ran through me with a jolt on the second day of chemo--the images were so powerful, yes, as a stand alone poem. But the extra power of it was that Lucille Clifton was in the English department (my department) at St Mary's College of Maryland (my tiny college) while I was there.  She came when I was nearly finished there and so I never took a class from her, but her form and her voice at meetings and walking through the halls fills me with love and connection to a place that was so important for me. This poem in particular is doubly important for me because St Mary's is a place where I started the crew team, so her blessing the boats is in part a blessing for me. Mark didn't know any of that when he printed the poem on thick cream paper and sealed the envelope with a golden circle. But the many layers of relationships in this poem--encircled as they all are by love and by water--swept through me on the (surprisingly easy) second day of chemo.

Lucille Clifton: "Blessing the Boats"
(at St. Mary's)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back    
may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

(Pictures today are from the last visit we took to St Mary's. You can see how long ago that was--maybe a decade.)

19 March 2015

The gift

Nearly exactly a year ago, a box arrived in the mail. It was marked FRAGILE and wrapped with great care, but the contents on the customs form just read: STATIONERY. Why would stationery be fragile? I wondered as I opened the box to find another box and in that yet another.

The inner box was beautiful, golden waves with frothy tendrils in blue and white: a tumultuous sea, maybe. And inside, from my dear friend Mark, were thick cream envelopes, each numbered 1-90, each sealed with a golden circle, and each containing a poem Mark had picked out as a companion for my chemo journey.

My hair is back now, thick short curls, and my nails are strong again. The last of the chemo side effects seems to be behind me—except, I hope, the life saving effects which (I hope I hope) will long continue. Still, the memory of the kindness of the people around me covers me in an enduring cloak, perhaps best symbolized by these daily poems from Mark.

And, to spread the gifts of these poems out to whoever might stumble across this blog, here is Day 1. Watch here for the other days to unfold, here in this year where I don’t have cancer, and I get to watch my nails and hair grow again, here in this year when many people will be diagnosed with cancer, and they will find themselves inside the chemo tunnel. May these poems bring comfort and love to you, no matter which sort of tunnel—of delight or sorrow or love or illness or heartbreak or health—you find yourself inside in the coming months. These are with love, from Mark.

Day 1
The Lightest Touch
Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.
In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.
  -- David Whyte