In my last newsletter, I spoke of recently being diagnosed with what has turned out to be a “difficult to treat”, squamous skin cancer inside my ear. The doctor says he thinks “radiation can take care of it” and that he doesn’t believe it has spread. So, I’m half way through 32 days of radiation treatments.
I typically would not have told anyone anything about this at all and certainly not put it in a newsletter. But in this case, I had made commitments to be a part of several public events and due to the treatment process, I would not be able to honor them. Since I had to tell a few people, and knowing human nature, (gossip is an essential part of being human), for me to be able to control the narrative at least a little bit, I decided to tell everyone at once, in my own words. I was overly optimistic about the effectiveness of my being proactive and trying to control the narrative, since I got word recently that a rumor is out “there” that says that I am in really in bad shape and am dying. (Which isn’t true, by the way, in case you hear that.) Apologies if my messages came across to you as part of my last will and testament.
I knew that some would respond to that news by contacting me and offering help and support. I decided to let everyone know exactly what kind of help and support would feel best to me. I know I am often left guessing how to support others who are going through situations like this, and it always helps if the person I am caring about can tell me what works for them (and doesn’t). A heart-felt thank you to those of you who were able to hear, honor, and act on my request.
People have inquired as to how I am doing and how I am handling things. First, for the physical “how I am doing”, the answer would be very well. Psychologically this has been a very rich time. This is my third go-around with cancer of one kind or another and each time I have learned so much about myself and the world I am a part of. This time has been no exception.
Thinking about how to answer the “how I am dealing with it” inquiry, I thought I would tell you exactly what I have been doing. This diagnosis of cancer was like being shot out of the sky. My plane didn’t explode, but I had to make a forced landing.
I believe, in our culture at least, to manage situations like this we have been given two acceptable tools. The first is to get the facts (what it is, what to do about it). The second is to engage our spiritual world (try to find out how what we are experiencing fits in to the bigger picture of what it means to be a human being). Both are helpful and sometimes one or the other is enough. Sometimes doing both does the job. Both options involve going outside of ourselves to seek relief.
However, sometimes, for some people, both things are not enough. I’m one of those people. Seven years ago, I went through a challenging, life-threatening, experience, and found that out. Despite having the best of information and a robust spiritual practice, I was not “OK”. I had run head-on into my mortality and things were not as I had imagined. Intuitively I knew collecting more information and/or doubling down on my spiritual practice was not the answer.
Eventually I stumbled on to what DID work for me. What I discovered complimented beautifully the other two strategies. The discovery? Go INSIDE. I began a dialog with MY mortality (a gentler word for death). I imagined that I sat down with this energy known as death. I treated it as if it was an uninvited guest who had crashed my party. We (my doctors, various medical procedures and drugs) had chased him out, but I knew he would be back. I sat down with death. I imagined what it looked like (A man). I began a conversation with him. It started out something like this:
"Well, since you unexpectedly came into my life and there is no doubt we are going to meet again, I want to learn everything I can about who you are and what you do and why you do it, so that when the time comes, when my personal appointment with you comes due, we can go together as friends, rather than have you appear as a terrorist in the night. I know what my culture thinks of you, I know what my spiritual practice makes of you, I know what they tell me to do with you, but that doesn’t work for me - it helps, it’s not enough. I want to know you personally and develop a friendship rather than see you as my mortal (pun intended) enemy”.
That dialog, which continues to occur, is now nearly a hundred pages long. Over the last half dozen years, he and I have talked frequently as he has come in and out of my life. I see him as he goes by my window on his way to summon a loved one. It has been one of the richest, most amazing and best things I have ever done for myself and the people in my world. Making peace with my own mortality.
So, this time, when the doctor said that I had cancer, I honestly couldn’t wait to get back to my computer to have a conversation with my mortality. (He has a name - Fred Mo.) I also initiated a conversation with my cancer, who I see as one of his subcontractors. Conversations with these two have continued over these last weeks. What I have discovered is that if I listen closely enough and are curious enough I will learn things that I can only find out by doing that. The information is personal, not universal, not to be found in books, or someone else’s belief systems. Here is a sample of some of these conversations.
Me: “Ok, here you are. You have shown up in my life in a very personal and dramatic way. I’m going to assume that you have shown up for a purpose. That you are trying to help me somehow. Tell me what you want me to know.”
Cancer: “You need to listen, that is why I landed, like a butterfly on your ear. There are things for you to notice and pay attention to. You are very good at listening to others, not so good at listening to yourself. Listen to yourself. Listen deeply. Accept what you hear. Listen, don’t talk. Be curious about what I must tell you. Trust what you hear. ‘Act on what you hear yourself saying.’”
I’ve been listening deeply. I have been amazed. I’m reminded that all three elements of managing things like this that come into my life (information- for example; skin cancer cells are normal skin cells that refuse to die-, a spiritual practice- I attended a spiritual retreat last weekend, and looking inside- I have dedicated many hours to being alone, paying attention to what is happening inside and sharing it with my authentic community) are required for me to find peace. And, surprisingly, I have. It really works for me.
A few months ago, I wrote about a poet (Rumi who lived 2,500 years ago) who wrote a poem “The Guesthouse”. In it he suggested that one aspect of living a full, virtuous and peaceful life is to treat anything and everything that comes in to our lives, including those things we would rather not come into our life (depression, death, sickness, disappointment, anger, envy, fear, and in my case, cancer), is to turn towards those things and engage them in conversation; in relationship (rather than trying to drug, suppress, deny, hide, get rid of, control, fight, battle, avoid, rationalize, etc.). Seeking information about what they would have us know, rather than treat them as energy that must be defeated or overcome somehow.
So, some unsolicited advice, if you find yourself in a situation where information is not enough, and your spiritual practice is not enough, go inside and have a conversation with “it”.
When people call me and ask what it would mean for them to work with me, I have them read that poem. I tell them that the work involves making peace with whatever happens to us as humans, including things like my cancer. War is not the answer; neither external against a perceived enemy nor internal against a perceived enemy. My experience is that there is nothing inside of me (or you) that is going to get better by going to war against it.
For those of you who are interested, here is Rumi’s Guesthouse poem again.
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest-house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture. Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Welcome difficulty. Learn the true alchemy true human
beings know: the moment you accept what troubles
you’ve been given, the door opens. Welcome difficulty as a familiar
comrade. Joke with torment brought by the Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover,
and then are taken off. That undressing,
and the beautiful naked body underneath,
is the sweetness that comes
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
(From “Say I Am You? Poems of Rumi,”
translation by John Moyne and Coleman Barks)