Places of Solace

I subscribe to a periodical, High Country News, that has a photo contest right now soliciting photos of places that give us solace.  I wish I had my many photo files available for I would surely submit some of my favorites of Mono Lake.  There are many places that have given me solace, all in open spaces, mostly the Great Basin or at the shoreline of lakes, oceans, even rivers.  Years ago, there was a book written by Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces, that I read closely because it spoke to my deep, deep affinity for open spaces in the landscape. Her essays were about life in rural Wyoming, a place I always thought I might want to live someday.

I’ve also lived in densely green, forested places that were disconcerting because I had no horizon amid the trees, yet I learned to love those places, too.  In Hawaii, there were many different landscapes on the Big Island and I loved them all—forests of ferns and ohia, arid fields of old lava, rugged ocean beaches, deserts with cactus, and rainforests lush and humid.  Now, since March 2017, I have been in a very open space in the Great Basin, living at the base of the southern terminus of the Ruby Mountains, in high desert, surrounded by rangeland covered in sagebrush, mountains in all directions.  But there has been no solace for the past few months as the fires burning in the West have blanketed us in smoke. The mountains are hidden, the blue sky is not there, and the sun sets every night as a blazing red circle sinking into layers of smoke.  It has been disheartening and I have cabin fever at this point because the air is so polluted with smoke that it is unwise to be outside too long, to do much of anything physical.  My eyes burn, I cough when the wind might blow, sometimes there is the scent of burning wood in the air, and this overcast reminds me of many, many years ago when I lived in a smoggy Los Angeles.

This week I came across a neologism, solastalgia: roughly translated as nostalgia for places of solace that have changed or are no more what they were.  While it was first created in response to climate changes, a friend posted a brief article about it in relation to the smoke now suffocating the entire West Coast.  It is here: https://thenarwhal.ca/the-lost-summer-the-emotional-and-spiritual-toll-of-the-smoke-apocalypse/

We are told the smoke won’t be gone until sometime in September and that is sad to me for many reasons.  Of course I feel sorrow for the people, animals, landscapes now tortured by these fires and know, unfortunately, that there will be more to come. The mountains I view have been beacons of something that keeps me grounded and while I often walk with my eyes on the ground, watching for snakes and interesting stones, I still want the mountains to show up clear and solid in all directions. And, far away today, I read the news about the flooding rains that have hit the Big Island, wondering what will change once the waters recede.  Landslides on an island with minimal roads in and out of places will isolate many.  The rain that falls on the still flowing lava from Kilauea will create a different hazard of toxic air as well.  The climate is changing, no matter what anyone wants to believe or not.  Five years ago I was in the Canadian Arctic, on Baffin Island, and ever since I have tracked the daily temperatures in the small settlement where we were, Iqaluit, watching temperatures grow warmer.  I read about the ice that is melting around Greenland and the impact on the lives of both the arctic animals and the arctic people who have depended on that ice.  For me, then, there is no solace in these times, for many reasons.

Not just the loss of familiar landscapes but also the losses being faced by so many in the world.  Here, I want to scream about the plight of the homeless and impoverished people that are not on the radar of any significant policy makers, let alone the person in the White House (who I detest; if you don’t like this, don’t follow me because I won’t engage in any arguing but I feel it is necessary to speak out about what I do care about and I certainly don’t care about him, his corrupt cronies, his sycophants, and the cowardly, complicit Congress with its smug Republicans who only worry about their own asses in elections, not the country and citizenry they are supposed to serve).  Education, health care, clean water and clean air matter to me and yet I am watching those sacred (for me) imperatives be ignored or trashed.  My friend reminds me often that there are too many people in the world and things will only get worse as resources become more scarce.  I understand this but I am living now, in the present tense, and I am enraged that there is so little compassion and constructive problem solving.  No one can use the excuse that their hearts are too tired.  My heart is very tired, and very broken, cracked in many places, yet the cruelties of what we are witnessing in this country alone make me worry for the future of my children.

I’ve had my own hard road to walk over many years but it has not hardened my heart.  It has made me want to give up at times but I won’t.  And the one antidote to despair that I could always call on was being outside in the natural world wherever I was able to get it.  (Although I could argue that the “natural” world is just as much a man-made world but I look for the open spaces where there is less evidence of “man.”)  There is no ideal world, no perfect place yet we need to have “places” that nurture our souls and our minds, our bodies.  Robert Frost wrote a poem many years ago that keeps coming to mind:

 

Fire and Ice

Robert Frost1874 – 1963

Some say the world will end in fire,	
Some say in ice.	
From what I’ve tasted of desire	
I hold with those who favor fire.	
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate	
To know that for destruction ice	
Is also great	
And would suffice.
I first read this poem when I was maybe 13 or 14 and I wondered about it a lot; it was unimaginable. Now, not so.  Yes, there have been many eras in the history of the Earth, many times of climate change killing off what was living as well as giving rise to new forms of life.  But, humans are hastening their demise, no matter what you do or don’t believe about science or climate change.  Epidemics of disease are yet to come and there’s always the random encounter with an asteroid.  Not to mention the weapons of mass destruction, mainly nuclear, that too many world leaders now play “chicken” with when brandishing their swords or bullying others.  I am tired and know my time on this Earth is not forever.  I lost one of my best friends this summer, too young at 68, yet her fate may still be mine given the cancer and its unpredictability.  But I don’t dwell on these things as much as I try to find the inner strength and resilience to make it through each day of choking smoke, depressing news, health issues, and so many other things that get in the way of solace.  I want solace, not nostalgia for solace.

Our Bodies Are Places Of Stories

I’ve been thinking about this for many years, having worked closely with peoples’ bodies as a massage therapist as well as working in traditional allopathic medicine settings where I interacted with patients.  Most pertinently, of course, I think about this in relation to my own body. Our bodies “contain” us, our organs and our psychologies, emotions, memories, etc.  But, within all these layers of physiology and psychology, there are sensory neural and motor receptors that hold memories of touch, smell, sound, taste, and sight, too. Be it in that elusive thing called a mind (after all, what is the mind?), our brain, our heart (both the organ and yet another elusive thing), whatever we perceive or believe is a soul, and most significantly, for my writing here, our skin—our body’s largest organ.

About 20 years ago I had a successful, full-time practice as a medical massage therapist and saw both men and women.  Sometimes people wanted to talk through a massage and most times there was no talking except me checking in to ask about pain, pressure, temperature. My understanding of anatomy is acutely sensitive: I could “see” muscles and often heard clients wonder how I could place my hands on “exactly the right place.”  Essentially, I felt I had a gift for “feeling my way” into a body as well as interpreting the messages in a body. Our bodies are places in space and time; they hold us in place through gravity, wherever we may be on Earth.  Our bodies are constantly recording information.  Some of us are more attuned to our bodies’ signals when facing stressful situations, scary or dangerous and threatening.  Some people say they “feel” with their gut and act from that center. Others notice the heat of flushing skin turning red and hot or tiny hairs literally standing up on the back or our necks or arms. And, sadly, many people are unconscious in their bodies, unable or unwilling to listen to the messages or overriding their best “guesses” that form when we are conflicted. I once heard that pain is the body’s vocabulary and that has stayed with me as an important reminder when my mind goes into “mind over matter” mode.

Our bodies are places of stories because  every one of us has stories buried deep within or literally exposed in postures and areas of chronic pain that deform and force adaptations. We may walk with our shoulders rounded forward, our heads bent, our chests concave so that we breathe shallowly.  We may have work that is hard physical labor, such as construction or even waitressing that forces us beyond the pain of repetitive motions.  Musicians are pained, such as drummers, whose arms are often sinewy and muscle hardened.  You may now be wondering about your own body: how do you stand, walk, sit?  What type of work do you do that makes your neck hurt all the time or causes carpal tunnel syndrome in your hands? What illness has molded you into someone you don’t recognize when all your hair falls out from chemotherapy, the many scars left by procedures, the endless needles pushed into veins, or the “guarding” of places made too vulnerable?

When my son was born there were some problems because he was early by a month.  His jaundice became profound and the doctors ordered multiple blood draws every day.  Being so small, the blood was drawn from his heels, which turned purple-blue from all the insults of needles.  I kept wondering what his small brain was recording then of pain, along with the darkness he was kept in, blindfolded and almost nude, in a plastic box that delivered light 24/7 to beat back the jaundice.  All I could think was that he has come into the world and was lonely.  It broke my heart, especially when we had to leave him at the hospital.  What is the story his body holds from that time, unconscious, but real?

The stories in our bodies are often unconscious to us, and, too often, stories of violence and abuse, of unbearable fear such as that experienced by a soldier on the front line, or  stories underwritten by shame.  Unexpressed anger is there in tightened knots as is grief, and grief is the one story I thought about the most.  Unexpressed grief turns a body to stone, literally and figuratively.  It can freeze our lungs and diaphragm so much that we barely breathe, and never deeply.  Or, it can be a place of chronic pain that one day suddenly releases itself with unexpected images and memories flooding us into a new state of consciousness.  I have witnessed people in just such a moment, on my massage table suddenly thrown into a state of panic and bordering on shock as the memories surge through their bodies and emotions.

One such story involved a man, in his 40s, who suffered with chronic back pain; he even brought along his x-rays to show me. I was in a clinic setting, with a supervisor, and this man was lying prone on the table.  I began to work on the muscles in his lower back and suddenly he became agitated, sweaty, and panicked.  I was worried he was having a heart attack or that I had hurt him, done something wrong. What manifested was a memory triggered by where I touched his extended muscles, with his arms stretched above his head. He told me that as a young boy, he and his brother built dirt forts, against their stern father’s warnings, and one day the dirt fort collapsed on this man.  He was in a prone position, his right arm stretched above his head, as he was on my table. The dirt covered him and he had a very small breathing space in front of this face, protected by his outstretched arm.  His brother frantically dug him out, but not before this man had begun to wonder if he would suffocate and die as well as fearing more that his father would punish him severely once this event was made known.  The two brothers kept this secret and never told anyone, even the man’s wife, who was also a friend of mine.

When I met this man he was carrying too much weight, in constant back pain.  Yet, he worked as a ceramic artist: he worked with dirt to make art.  After this episode, and assurances he would be evaluated by a physician to be sure there was nothing else going on, his body transformed.  He lost the extra weight (the “weight” of shame and guilt in this particular story) and his chronic back pain eventually went away.  More significantly, to me, his ceramic art became transformed as well.  He began making huge vessels and pots, not the small, constrained pieces he had been making.  His art became monumental and awe-inspiring.  He was freed from a story buried in his body that had constrained him most of his life, both in the choices he once made for a career until his desire to make art won out, and in how he “lived” in his body.  I felt as if I’d witnessed a miracle, that I was honored that he trusted me with his story in the moment when we were both scared by what was happening all because of the way I laid my hands on his back.

There is also the more distressing element of stories we carry after violence, sexual abuse, beatings, and a lifetime begun in childhood, perhaps, of living in constant fear.  I cannot name all the types of physical and mental violation but, as a survivor or these things, I have watched my body and mind in reaction, in retreat, in hiding, and in shame.  Years of psychotherapy helped, but new transgressions as an adult laid down memories I wish were not mine, as do many of you, I am sure.  This is particularly true for women, who have suffered at the hands of men.  I don’t know, yet, if telling some of these stories would make a difference for me, at least telling them here.  I do bring them into my writing but my desire, all my life, has been to transform the sadness, grief, misery, hurt, ugliness and fear into something I can live with in such a way that the story no longer has the energy to hurt me.  I choose writing and also, when my body was in less pain and disabled by a knee needing replacement, movement out in nature or just running and hiking, when I could.  Nature, to a large extent, has “saved” me.  It is because I can wander out into a space larger than my body and mind, as big as the sky, as rough as granite outcroppings, or as compelling as a rushing river or small stream.  I chose the birds, who can fly, to be my anchors, too.  I felt communion and expansion of my heart, my soul, my imagination.

This blog isn’t going anywhere final as a conclusion.  The important thought is that our bodies are places of stories and I believe each of us must tell our stories before we die, however we choose.  I realize people die without telling their stories but I wonder if sometimes it is because no one asked or no one listened, especially when the buried story warped a person into someone unable to give or receive love and compassion? We blame our bodies for a lot of things but our bodies are amazing, no matter how afflicted by life or circumstances, such as cancer. And  our capacity for healing is far greater than we may consciously believe, because, ultimately it is all about belief and faith.  I will end with a quote that has accompanied me for many years and was framed on the walls of my massage therapy office, for clients.

Our bodies are places of stories, however we choose to tell them or not, but they do “work” their way through us, sometimes as a splinter that needs to come out on its own or as a sudden revelation that alters everything. Ultimately, I believe that telling our story/ies, even if only in our private writings, heals us.  What are your stories?

  1. Healing is a lifelong journey toward wholeness.
  2. Healing is remembering what has been forgotten about connection, and unity, and interdependence among all things living and nonliving.
  3. Healing is embracing what is most feared.
  4. Healing is opening what has been closed, softening what has hardened into obstruction.
  5. Healing is entering into the transcendent, timeless moment when one experiences the divine.
  6. Healing is creativity and passion and love.
  7. Healing is seeking and expressing life in its fullness, its light and shadow, its male and female.
  8. Healing is learning to trust life.

from Woman As Healer by Jeanne Achterberg

Listening for the Egg Song

I may already have mentioned this chicken behavior; the hens announce their laying of an egg with an “egg song” specific to each hen.  I still haven’t gotten them down, though, but I listen for them in hopes I can run out and get freshly laid eggs before the thieving magpies.  Sometimes I’m lucky and other times the magpies are luckier.

It’s early spring here, still cold, and predators are already after the chickens.  I don’t know if they will survive as predators are pretty hungry and persistent.  On the weekend I saw the shadowy form of a coyote at the back-end of the coop around 2:30 a.m., trying to figure out a way to get those hens but she gave up.  I think it was a female because she left a big puddle of pee as a mark and a male would’ve lifted his leg against the structure. Yesterday I saw where something smaller—a badger or raccoon or fox—had tried digging its way into the enclosure. I put logs against the base of the chicken wired frame that is all there is between the chickens and these predators in an effort to thwart whatever animal and found some of the bark scratched off today.  On Easter I also found scat that either belonged to a coyote or maybe even a cougar.  It didn’t quite look like Coyote had been prowling on the outside deck but it could’ve been a mountain lion; they are here as well. too.

I don’t know why the chickens intrigue me because they are quite messy, too.They’re also quick to beg for extra treats once they’ve been indulged.  Their behavior is often comical and there is truth to the pecking order.  The smallest hen, Skeeter, continues to win me over every time she does her little tap dance squat to be petted or, more startling, jumps from the roost almost onto my head!

A few days after the first day of Spring, we heard the first singing of a meadowlark out in the sagebrush.  But, we continue to have alternating days of snow and rain, blustery cold winds, and the songs silent without the sun and bright blue sky.  I also saw a golden eagle fly onto the bare branches of a towering cottonwood up the road.  It sat there, eyeing me as I stopped the car to stare, too, and then it glided off on immense wings, the wing tips upturned like long feathered fingers.  The eagles come in to the fields where the cows are calving; they clean up the afterbirth.  It’s an interesting symbiosis of sorts.

I’m traveling to South Carolina toward the end of this month to scope it out as a possible relocation, to visit my sister, to see a few friends and family scattered between SC and NC.  The biggest visit will be meeting new family members of a very large clan that belongs to my birth father.  Now that we have identified him, it is almost overwhelming to me that I will actually be connecting with a new family at this time in my life.  I’m sad he was killed so young in the Korean War and probably never knew about me.  But it is still an amazing moment that has arrived so late.

I wonder, too, about the “egg songs” we all sing as mothers when we give birth to a new child.  While not really egg songs, there is still a song in our soul and our heart that maybe only we and the newborn hear.  I wish, though, that my mother and father had lived long enough to tell me what they “heard” when I came into being.

Snow Quiets the World

Today is the first day of Spring, the Vernal Equinox, when Earth in the Northern Hemisphere tilts ever so slightly in the direction of the Sun. Today the night and day will be of equal length. But, we are still in the grip of a late winter.  March came in like a lion, literally a Snow Lion*, burying us in the most snow we’ve gotten all year.  The snow has continued to come every week and the temperatures have been cold enough to prolong its melting.  I took a sledgehammer to the ice between me and the chicken coop and still could not knock loose all of it, so hard and thick.  The mountains north of us have the texture of powdered white donuts and the snow will melt there first, in the furrows and dimples of what are usually bare brown slopes.  The mountains behind us are different, higher and more snow bound for now.  We are on the slope and it’s all downhill slipping and sliding on the dirt road to our house.

I like how the world gets completely quiet in the snow, both when it’s falling and after when it shimmers white and silent across the open fields here.  One day we saw the delicate imprint of an owl’s wings as they scraped the snow, silently, bearing down on a mouse. There were mouse tracks leading to a place where the wings appeared and it was clear the mouse didn’t make it to the protection of the sagebrush only a few feet away.  It was probably a Great Horned Owl for the wing imprints were large.  I’ve seen a few pairs of hawks in the distant treetops, and imagine they are scouting for nesting territories. Small birds are increasing in numbers, juncos, slate-colored juncos, swifts, and lots of plain brown or black birds I can’t identify because they move so quickly.  The magpies stay all winter and we continue our competition for eggs.  Today I was lucky and got all four eggs but usually the magpies get at least half.

Speaking of magpies and chickens, we still have four hens.  I recently figured out the identity of one, the smallest one, that had perplexed me because it didn’t lay eggs (or hadn’t in the past year I’ve been here).  She is a Dorking, an ancient species of chicken that comes from England and goes way back to Roman times.  She is very affectionate and docile, doing a little tap dance before squatting to be petted.  She is quite endearing and her name is Skeeter.  She always jumps down from the roost to do her little tap dance when I am shutting them in or letting them out.  Dorking is a very dorky kind of name, don’t you think?

The biggest snowstorm came on March 1, with terrific howling winds thrashing the house all night, sometimes so hard the house shook.  Yet, I like the wind, even though it startles and sends various objects flying away down the driveway, including the big old garbage can.  On days after storms, if the sun shines, the sky is a magnificently brilliant shade of blue that I have decided to call “cold winter blue.” It makes me happy to gaze up into it even as icicles form in the wind chills that seem to have stayed below freezing most of March.  One of these days the storms will be gone and Spring will truly burst onto the scene with all its noise and colors.  I am waiting for the first meadowlark to sing somewhere out in the sagebrush and then the gradual appearance of wildflowers that don’t last long but seem to have a processional calendar for when they appear and vanish.

In the snowy fields now there are many calves, all born in March.  They are black angus on the ranches surrounding us and calving season comes despite the weather.  I’ve seen a large black cow rocking back and forth in the throes of birth, the birth sac-covered head of a calf barely emerging.  I can’t help but wonder why they are born in such cold weather but they come and they survive. With Spring’s arrival, though, I dread the prowling predators that will soon be stalking the chicken coop when young coyote pups are born and the huge raccoons climb down from their trees to do what harm they can, too.  We have a new neighbor up the hill behind us that is a professional tracker.  He tells me that he kills all the predators, especially the mountain lions that also live here.  It bothers me because the lions are killed to keep them from reducing the herds of bighorn sheep “planted” in the mountains for hunters.  There are many, many mule deer for the lions but people out here don’t like most predators, preferring to get rid of everything from magpies to coyotes, foxes to mountain lions, and rattlesnakes.

At some point soon I hope to travel back to South Carolina and that will no doubt be a “landscape and culture shock” after living out here in the high desert.  I love the landscape here, as barren and harsh as it is, the sagebrush and rabbitbrush, the wide open spaces and absence of people for the most part.  Yet, I must find a way to make a new home for myself and it is painfully clear to me that I cannot remain here, for many reasons.  Elko is a strange little town that doesn’t want to grow yet it is the only town of consequence between Salt Lake City and Reno, at least 600-700 miles of Interstate 80.  I still must drive to Salt Lake City for medical follow-ups and always marvel at the variety of landscape between here and there, too.  The Bonneville Salt Flats, numerous mountain ranges that make up the basin and range topography of the Great Basin.  Still, after months of pondering, I realize I must leave this landscape if I am to find some kind of suitable income and affordable housing for myself.  I have my romantic illusions about this place and consider it home in my soul, but for now it will not work for me without a car, a job, and affordable housing, not to mention the inadequate health care resources.  Elko is all about old ranching families still caught up in the romance of the West and the overwhelming presence, out of sight but not out of mind, of large gold mining companies.  I wanted to like Elko but it doesn’t work for me now.

Being a cold-weather person I wonder if I will tolerate the South? I think of how humid it was in Hawaii, when I lived there, and I adapted but there were daily breezes usually and an ocean to swim in.  The temperatures never varied a great deal and were seldom unbearable; it was the humidity that almost did me in.  But, I wanted my way going forward these past few years to be different, to not be a “return” to what was already known or had been lived.  I miss Northern California but know I cannot afford to live there. Texas slowly grew on me and now I see that the four states most Californians are flocking to because of the high cost of living in California, are Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Texas, especially Texas. I am grateful for every opportunity I have had to experience new places but never imagined I’d ever be living in the South! It remains to be seen, especially now that I have a paternal connection and family there to get to know.  It is so very amazing how life works out and this Spring will be amazing, too. I am ready for new adventures and new learning. What would you do if you had an opportunity to do something different now? I keep reminding myself that nothing is lost, even dreams or wishes that don’t pan out; everything leads us into a deeper level of living if we remain open and receptive. I want to live deeply, as always, and after these last three years of illness and recovery, I am ready, I think, to go wandering again.

The quiet of a snow covered landscape has given me lots of time to think and reflect, all important for healing.  At times it’s been very, very hard but I always try to take what is good and beautiful from my life, if I can, and spin it into the golden thread that I will continue weaving into my life’s tapestry.  The larger world is troubling and sad and the only respite I find is to be able to go out into the open spaces and remember to breathe, to stay open even when I want to shut down and close myself into a clam.  I don’t want to waste my remaining life in thoughts of what could have been or should’ve been; I want what is possible, wherever I can find and accept it. I don’t know what the answers will be but I am always asking questions.  And the cold winter blue skies, the muffled world after a big snowstorm, the clucking chickens and noisy magpies, will keep me company until I go.

*The Snow Lion is the symbol of Tibet. It is said that its feet never touch the ground, but it does not fly. “The roar of the Snow Lion embodies the sound of ’emptiness’ (Sanskrit: Śūnyatā), courage and truth, and because of this is often a synonym for the Buddhadharma, the Buddha’s teachings, as it implies freedom from karma and the challenging call to awakening. It was considered to be so powerful that just a single roar could cause seven dragons to fall from the sky.” It is associated with joy and fearlessness, and the direction of the East. (a quick run to Wikipedia for this; not the best source but something for basic information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_Lion) Thus will I journey to the East in joy and fearlessness, I hope, welcoming this new season of my life and a new awakening, not to mention maybe a dragon or two!

My Mothers, My Fathers, Me

Today marks 58 years since my birth mother died in a car accident when I was 9.  It is a date I always remember.  She was 31. With her gone I lost all hope of ever learning so many things she could have told me, questions I would only be able to ask when I was much older.

The reason I named this blog “Nomadic Spirit” has to do with what my life became, both before my mother’s death and after.  In my lifetime of 67 years I have lived in as many different “homes” as my years (yes, 67+).  As a child we moved often and I had to find a way to steady myself in the world when there was no stability to count on or a real “home” to call my own.  This moving around continued into my adult life when I went to college and then when I was married and my husband’s job relocated us often.  At some point I realized I was living a nomadic existence, unrooted and adapting to whatever environment I was in.  I wanted a place to call home forever, or at least a family home I could come and go from at times and there was a great-aunt whose home provided some of that but she is long gone now, too.

I was born in Los Angeles and also spent a lot of growing-up time in Reno, Nevada.  For many reasons, I feel at home in the landscape of the Great Basin, with all its open space and I have romanticized it, too. Being out here in the far northeastern corner of Nevada has been a gift although I don’t think I can or will stay because it’s not tenable for me to be here without an income and a car; I gave up my car to go to graduate school and cannot afford to get one.  So I look for communities where I might be able to live with a lower cost of living and public transportation since I know I cannot return to California, either, with its prohibitive costs.

I will eventually go check out South Carolina this spring, where yet another sister lives, and see if I can find what I’m looking for there.  It’s not that I don’t have a “home” inside me, for I always have in the form of my spirit and my openness to learning whatever I can wherever I am so that my life is enriched in ways that often exceed the longing.  But, I never intended to be a nomad in a physical sense, only in the figurative sense of my far-ranging curiosity and thinking, which I treasure as my lifelines.

Still, there has been one long unanswered question for me all my thinking life:  where or who did I come from?  I knew my mother even though I often didn’t live with her at times. And I had a wonderful stepmother that I lost in 1989 and still miss.  It was the question about fathers:  who was my father?  One man claimed me and I was raised by him up to adolescence, believing he was my father.  He was my “daddy” and I carried his name along with the rest of my sisters.  But we are a mixed bag of half-sisters, step-sisters in terms of various parent combinations and no one else had mine.  When I was 15 I learned that my last name was not the one I had, that there was a different one on my birth certificate and I was so dismayed.  He was my mother’s first husband, one she separated from and divorced all around the time of my conception and birth.

I met this man, through searching, when I was 18.  The first thing he told me was that he wasn’t sure if I was his daughter or not, that he didn’t know.  I was stuck with the name (Puffer) of a man who never claimed me as his own child and even when we met I felt something was off.  But I wasn’t allowed to change my name then, either, and so, grudgingly, I began the ambivalent relationship I have had with my last name ever since I was forced to use it.

Now, in an extraordinary moment, one of my sisters who is a genealogy expert, has found the name of the man who fathered me, using DNA.  I am stunned by this news but also relieved because suddenly so many questions are being answered.  I didn’t think that this late in my life I would care anymore, but I do. There is a story, a war story, surrounding this coming together of my mother and him that resulted in me.  I will not tell it here but it has had my head spinning.  He, unfortunately, was a young Marine shipped off to fight in the Korean War and died within months of landing there.  His family may not be interested in knowing that their eldest, unmarried son fathered a daughter; he, himself, may not have even known.  I will never know but I know now that some of the things I have felt and been told over the years about my genesis are coming together in a story I can believe.

Ironically, he was from South Carolina and maybe I will even find some sense of home there someday.  My trip to SC was planned months before this news reached me but it is so coincidental to be worth taking note.

And today I wonder a lot about my mother and I can only wonder so much about him without more information.  But my heart has felt a dam burst in it, a dam I put there long ago to stop the hurt of not knowing.  So much more makes sense.  As for the nomadic life, I want to settle down somewhere and maybe it will be back out here in the West, maybe not.  But the small hole of wondering that I have long carried inside is feeling healed and as a more whole person I will still wander but with more purpose and a bit more joy for having had that burning question answered.

A Supermoon, Snow & A Super(?) Hen

I’ve delayed writing for a week now, much to my chagrin.  So much I had in mind and now most of it lost. But, I am persisting.  The Full Moon Super Moon was a week ago on Dec. 3. That was a Sunday and it snowed most of the day, plunging into single digits temps by the early evening.  I wondered if the clouds would clear for a Full Moon viewing and was pleasantly surprised when I stepped out around 1 a.m. to view the  Moon.  There was a large rainbow tinged halo around it but it was a big Full Moon casting its icy light across snowy fields.  The contrast of white and black, some grey, made the stillness and freezing cold air a scene of suspended animation.  An hour later, when I still could not sleep, I returned to the window and noticed that the light casting over our snowy acreage was a very pale blue.  Magical and comforting despite the cold I did not venture out into for a second look.

But, the next morning, when I went out to free the 4 hens from their coop, I was dismayed when I discovered that my favorite hen, Ruby, was not in the coop! Somehow I missed her when I shut them in the night before.  In the twilight and snow I peered into their coop as I always do, to count them, and didn’t see that she wasn’t there after all. Too many shades of dark brown and black, I guess. Chickens do everything as a group:  they wander around eating bugs, chase each other, and all return like clockwork at the first sign of dimming sunlight (cockshut) in the late afternoon these days. Wherever Ruby was, she wasn’t with the group. I resigned myself to the probability she’d been eaten during the night by a coyote or bobcat. I searched the snow for tracks and feathers, but couldn’t find anything to suggest what happened. I blamed myself for missing her in the nightly count.

Later in the day, though, I sat on the front porch a minute and uttered her name several times, just in case.  Lo and behold, Ruby answered and slowly appeared from behind the shrubs now bowed down with snow along one side of the house. These chickens have not been handled so they shy away from being caught. Still, I threw food out to her, which she did go after, and hoped she had not suffered frostbite. How she survived the bitter cold night, alone and undetected by the wild predators that are always around us here, was amazing. But, I couldn’t get her out from under the bushes and back toward the coop. So, I chased and caught another favorite hen, Boo, who seems to be a possible leader of the flock. I placed her down near Ruby in the bushes and hoped that Ruby would somehow follow Boo back to the coop. They hung out together, pecking at scratch and seeds, but neither wandered back to their coop.  No such luck….

As the day grew colder and dimmer, I made the mistake of going outside once with no gloves, determined to use a broom to “hurry” the hens out from under the bushes onto the driveway and eventual connection with the rest of the group in the coop.  Again, no such luck….Boo ran off as hoped and quickly got on her roost in the coop. Ruby? Still in the bushes and reluctant to walk on snow or leave the shrubbery. My maneuver only took a few minutes and since I was determined to “save” her from herself and another night of freezing or predation, I clumped across the branches bowed down with snow, swatting at the “thing with feathers” and immediately face-planted in the snow when I tripped over some branches. I wish someone had been around to laugh at me, face down in the snow, as well as to help me get up. My arthritic, damaged knee does not bend and rolling round in the snow, grasping at other branches, I finally got myself upright, exasperated and very cold.

When my sister came home from work, in the last few minutes of light, I suggested we try again, heading Ruby off “at the pass” if we had to although now I was wondering why her instinct for survival wasn’t guiding her actions. Was she hypothermic and addled, not thinking clearly? Were her chicken toes too cold to stand for more than a second in the snow she’d have to cross to get back to the coop? I’d never captured and held her before and didn’t know if I could as she was pretty quick at running along the wall just beyond reach of my broom and net and then circling back around me over the snow-burdened branches that had earlier tripped me. I didn’t want to fall again and I didn’t want to admit defeat but Ruby was evading me quite nimbly.

On one of her circles back, though, I pounced with my hands on her back, worried I’d break her delicate backbone but trying to stop her just long enough to grab her, which I finally succeeded in doing. The screech she let out was unlike anything I’d heard from any of the chickens, even Boo, who I’d chased down and caught earlier. I put her in the coop and hoped she’d be alive in the morning.  And, she was! She did not come out of the coop all day and was lucky that the sun warmed the coop for most of the afternoon, restoring her inner temperature to normal, I hoped. I brought her food and water, shut her in with everyone at “cockshut” time and Ruby was her usual self by last Wednesday.

Maybe chasing down and saving a chicken from itself is something trivial in the climate of the world we live in now. California is burning up in wildfires, our despicable political climate exerts more toxicity than imaginable, and many of us worry about what will happen next with the outrageous “tax reform” bill, less accessibility to health care, and for those of us on Social Security and Medicare, the real threat of those being attacked, too.  I resent that I paid taxes all my working life into Social Security and Medicare and am now viewed by the repugnant Republicans in Congress (some) as not deserving of the benefits, hearing them wrongly called entitlements. And, the sexual harassment issues are huge and applicable to so many of us as women, too many, and the men who lie about such things will continue to be emblematic of how women/females are still not valued in our society.  No, I don’t like what is going on and I know I am not alone.

So, if I can save the chicken from herself, even as I plot daily how to save myself from myself or the economic deprivations I am now experiencing, then I am happy that my respect for life, even a chicken’s life, has been something I could act on. I just wish I had more options available to me now, such as a job and enough income to live in my own space instead of the nomadic journey I have made through sisters’ houses the past three years, with no end yet in sight. Face plant and all, the chickens keep me sane during this time of cultural insanity. And, Ruby is a super chicken for having survived one very, very cold night when we heard coyotes howling earlier but they didn’t find her. For us humans, though, there are coyotes howling ever closer every day. I hear them and wonder how I will survive?

Sunflowers and Emu Eggs

Today is the 35th birthday of a young man who has been close to my heart since he was 12.  He first knocked on my front door when I lived in Grass Valley, CA.  It was during a time of grieving by my daughter and me and I didn’t want to be bothered but something about him connected us almost from the start.  Was it his intensely blue eyes and friendliness or something I couldn’t see but already felt from his heart?  He had just moved in across the street and soon became a daily visitor who liked my cat and sometimes watched television, sometimes slept over on the couch.  His family life was rough and I asked permission for him to be over as often as he was.  His teeth were bad and I quickly figured out that he had known a lot of neglect and rejection in his young life, with much more to come over the years.

There were tragedies but he often hung out with my son and me as we went on driving trips out to the coast or up into the foothills.  We often hiked along the South Yuba River.  In the summers we hiked back almost a mile to swim in a favored swimming hole.  He was fearless around the water and we always laughed and enjoyed ourselves.  When driving, with or without my son along, we would often exclaim, “What’s that?” when we saw some animal crossing our path or alongside the road.  Usually we were going too fast to stop and look closer before the animal hid.  It became a kind of code phrase between us, all these mysterious sightings.  Once, in a county park in Sonoma County, a very large and long rattlesnake slithered across the roadway in front of my car.  It was at least the length of one car lane and then some extending over the center line. I was fascinated at how big it was, how slowly it crossed the road, and I wanted to get close enough to look at it from my open window. The boys, on the other hand, were totally freaked out in the back seat and I asked them if they thought the snake was going to climb into the car?!  Years later, this young man would live among people in a rattlesnake infested area where he learned to gently collect them from the house and move them elsewhere.

On another Sonoma trip I showed him how to follow a killdeer who was doing her best to distract us away from her nest.  I searched carefully and soon found four small speckled eggs close together in the rocky terrain.  I hoped he learned something about paying attention and not disturbing what he found; I hoped he felt it was a blessing. In my life, I count him as a blessing, too.

Killdeer Nest 2009

Today I celebrate him in my heart even though I cannot be with him and haven’t seen him in more than four years. His life has continued to be very hard and very sad at times yet we often found ways to visit whenever we both lived in California.  I always remembered his birthday and Christmas.  It was hard keeping track of him as he was often homeless and still is.  He has learning disabilities that have impaired his ability to work and at times been treated unkindly.  He has been his worst enemy and one of my best friends.  I call him a child of my heart, for he is not a child from my body, but he has firmly rooted himself in my heart through all the years and tears.  He’s been incredibly helpful to me in many instances of needing a strong person to help me move. He saved my life from a man who may very well have meant me murderous harm but somehow this young man intuited it and stayed close to help me, calling police and watching out for me.

He’s made me laugh and I’ve cried over him.  I’ve worried about him and prayed for him.  I still do and long to see him.  He lives farther than I can afford to travel now but I keep trying to find a way to him.  He lost his parents and has no close family.  He lost what little he had in a huge California fire a few years ago but escaped with his life and only the clothes he wore.  He’s probably the loneliest person I know and it hurts to know this because I have experienced such love and kindness from him over the years but a lot of people shun or avoid people like him.  He’s been homeless long enough to become feral in many ways and doesn’t do well at jumping through the hoops to get whatever limited aid may be available.  He has been a deep teacher for my soul, an unwanted source of pain and sorrow and anger at times, but always and foremost, my friend and someone I value very much in this life and promised to keep a hold of forever.

I could write and write about him and what he has endured and think I will at some point because there are so many stories, so many struggles we went through together and many more he endured alone.  He is a survivor, as am I, and yet I always wonder how it came to be that we bonded.  It was something in him that I felt yearning, reaching, just as I had as a lonely child.  And, it was the gentleness with which he revealed his creative soul to me, what others seldom saw or appreciated.  Early on in that first year of our friendship, in early spring, he brought me sunflowers because he somehow guessed I would like them. (He was right.)  And then, one day, he brought me half an emu eggshell he’d found. It was dark, kind of green-black and stippled with blue/turquoise dots.  It was one of the most beautiful, delicate things I’d seen and he knew it would delight me.  To this day we still talk “in sunflowers” whenever we can.

I miss him and wish I could have seen or even talked to him today.  But, I now know that he is in a community willing to befriend him if he accepts their outreach.  He is making public art out of discarded flowers and whatever else he finds, sharing his heart to bring joy to other hearts.  Below is a heart made from found flowers and plants and a wire man reading a book on a bench, all made by Justin Olson, November 2017, Healdsburg CA:

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There is no happy ending in sight but I keep hoping for him especially when the rainy season begins, as it has now, and he lives in his tent.  I wish I had a home he could come to and we would somehow find a way to redeem all the pain, loss, grief, and broken-heartedness we’ve known separately, nurturing ourselves again with the love and joy we always had when together.  “What’s that” going to look like if it ever happens?

Today I celebrated him in my heart with memories of all the joyful times we’ve shared and the sense of wonder he found in those sunflowers and emu eggs.

 

Almost Half A Century Ago

Today was interesting for the synchronicity of receiving some old photos of me, at 18, on the same day when I was contemplating aging.  I had sent my children an unvarnished photo of me today, noting the now grey hair and how my face is changing.  I’m still surprised when I see photos now.  No makeup, just me straight on and, while aging is inevitable, I still feel that a sense of vitality eludes me in current photos.  I ascribe this loss to the cumulative effects of what I’ve been through the past two years of treatment, perhaps the disease itself, and the current regimen of medicine.  I miss that spark and sometimes I catch it but I see the difference in photos from the past five years, too.

But the synchronicity was that my first love, a boyfriend from years ago and still someone with whom I have sporadic contact, sent me a zip file containing photos he had from when I was 18.  It was stunning to me to see these and better yet, I could recall where they were taken. Two are below, the first from when I was a senior in high school, nearing graduation at 18, and the other from one of the many road trips we took up the California coast before we parted ways for a long time.  It made me happy to see these and remember.  He turns 71 tomorrow, and I am more than halfway to 67.

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It is startling to realize that these photos are almost half a century ago!  How does the magnitude of the years and all that occurred between then and now begin to be told as the story of a life lived?  We tend to calculate time in a linear fashion, we humans, although I don’t believe it is linear and, frankly, I’m not even sure that “time” exists or what it is, exactly.  But, I can look at these pictures and remember so much of who I was and some of the dreams I had then.  People even made fun of me for being an idealist yet the alternative, in my world, would have been despair.

Tonight the clouds are dense and blue-grey, covering the sky in the west.  Snow is predicted for tomorrow, but it will likely be light and short-lived.  Seasons pass as a form of time; I believe more in cycles.  And maybe parallel universes where this young woman still exists.  I’m not sure of any of this but I ponder it often.  Geologic time fascinates me because it is so slow and enduring.  We don’t notice the changes, if any are noticeable, in the rocks and mountains until we face a catastrophic change in the geography, a huge rock shearing away from the face of El Capitan as it did recently; now the face of this iconic landform is forever changed but it is still El Capitan.

Up in the Lamoille Canyon, formed by glaciation, I try to imagine how the ice moved slowly and carved the narrow, steep valley, the incredibly monumental cliffs of rock reaching far into the blue sky.  I am awed by it all and that, ultimately, is what living is all about for me:  a sense of awe and wonder that has never left me, regardless of many hardships along the way that shattered dreams and made others impossible to entertain. I don’t dream as much now for we live in some bad times, as far as I’m concerned, and dreaming is hard when so much needs to be done just to survive and help others survive, if we can.  I am, indeed, aging and it seems so backwards that all the wisdom only comes later, before we finally die or have no more use for it.  And, we cannot give it to our children or anyone else, really; they must earn it with their own lives lived.  We can tell others, and I believe my children deduce a fair amount of wisdom in what they know about me, but oh, that young woman of 18 was so innocent, naive, shy, and full of ambition to be “somebody.”  But, we are always “somebody” even if we don’t claim ourselves until after many cycles of life lived with losses and gains, unwanted experiences and some we could never imagine.

I confess that there is a turning point when people do think a lot about the trajectory of their lives,as they grow older,  For some that may bring sorrow and regret.  I remember meeting a wise old woman, an artist, many years ago in Big Sur.  She lived in a house that was part of the property where Henry Miller once lived.  She was tough and certain of herself in a way I admired but was also just a little intimidated by as I sat having tea with her in her magnificent house perched high on the cliffs of Big Sur, overlooking the Pacific Ocean far below.  She was in her eighties, still creating jewelry, and her house was a marvel of the psyche turned inside out with masks on walls, thoughtful art, and just a glorious sense of mystery and wonder. She told me then, when I was barely 34 or 35, that I would have to choose from all the dreams I had and realize I could not, would not, have them all.  She wanted me to understand that commitment to a few would bring far more excellence than pursuing as many as I could imagine.  I wasn’t quite ready to believe her but now I know what she meant.

There were so many things I wanted to do, places I wanted to experience.  It is part of youth to believe you can do anything and everything.  But it is not a failure to admit to discretion, when the time comes, as it does on this side of aging when there is a reckoning with oneself about what is possible and probable, the fates willing, with an awareness of the thread of one’s life shortening.  I am not sad and this pondering, this “wondering” that brought me to tonight’s post, is not a swan song.  Who knows how many years, days, hours any of us has at any age?  Yet, the young woman in these pictures believed with all her heart that she had all the time in the world and now I know otherwise.  It’s not about time, though.  I think it’s about will, intention, and staying open to experiences however they arrive and when they arrive, regardless of age.  I am simply reckoning, though, with the girl I was and the woman I am.

Distractions, Detractions, Beauty

Tonight’s sunset presented me with a Rorschach image.  Opaque dark grey clouds covered most of the sky, with a thick layer of burning red-orange light on the underside of a mass of blackening cloud layered above the western sky.  I looked into the cloud mass and saw a jaguar, with its mouth open.  I thought it might be running toward the setting sun.  Then I saw that a large dark shape was on its back or side and first thought it was a turtle but then watched the head of a vulture or condor appear.  The jaguar’s neck was partial and a blackness filled the space where its neck and further down, its heart, would have been.  So I interpreted that the jaguar’s heart was gone, perhaps eaten by the large predator bird.  The jaguar wasn’t running anywhere; it was on its side, dead or dying and the huge black wings of the bird covered most of it.  I watched the darkness in its neck and chest merge with the wings of the bird.  Blood orange-red light in the west.

Out here there are sometimes spectacular sunsets.  Tonight was the first time I thought these things, thinking I was only going to see the thin band of burning sunlight as the sun sank far away in the west, over the ocean.  Out here we have magnificent spreads of stars covering the sky whenever it is clear and a New Moon night.  The Full Moon is almost upon us in a few days, though, and the stars will be blinded

There is a kind of beauty in this part of the world that many people do not experience or see.  If it is daytime, and they are driving through or just hanging out on a porch, wondering about other places they could be, there is mostly a sparse landscape of dun and sagebrush, golden grasses and a lot of open space.  The mountain range behind me is something else, more dramatic but not always in view.

In the past few weeks I made two trips to Salt Lake City.  I rent a car for these trips, both related to visits to the cancer center in Salt Lake City where I am followed.  It is expensive, since I don’t own a car anymore, and I have now made the trip at least four times.  I drive interstate 80, the only straight road east.  Driving out of Elko, past miles of sage and sand, an occasional crossing over the Humboldt river, and a few small summits where there are more trees and wondrous rock outcroppings, I always look forward to the drop down into the edges of the Great Salt Lake landscape that begin with the Bonneville Salt Flats.  Long distances are covered at 80 mph (posted speed), and the salt flats dazzle, especially if there are clouds in the clear blue skies.  Silhouettes of dark mountains lie at a distance to the north and south, perpetual reminders of the basin and range geography; no matter where you look there will a distant set of peaks rising up in shadowy relief behind the closest mountains.

Every time I drive this route, I commit it to memory, sometimes surprised to see something new when most of my vision is on the road.  This past trip I saw what looked like an ancient lava flow in a small group of hills and a red earth cinder cone.  I have been most delighted in the past two trips by the sight of miles of wild sunflowers waving their yellow faces next to the road shoulder and in the median.  I couldn’t help but wonder if someone had planted them but it seems unlikely.  They made me happy.

But, these sightings are not distractions or detractions to me.  Detractions are usually the ugly constructions made by humans, scattered in the barren landscape.  And, in one area marked by a sign as Independence Valley, there is another sign advising against picking up hitchhikers because it is a prison area; what irony to live in Independence Valley, in a prison.  Or maybe it’s cognitive dissonance.  I see a sign for Beverly Hills but it must be hidden back in the hills.  There isn’t much to be surprised by on the long straight stretch between Wendover and Salt Lake City.  I’ve learned to look for the lone Christmas Tree sitting by itself on a mound out in the sand, with a chair.  There is a big, peculiar piece of public art that I keep wondering how I can photograph.  It is tall, painted in pastel colors, and has what look like four large globes hanging off the top. I can’t tell if it’s meant to be some kind of stylized palm tree or just a weird, alien prop on the white salt.

When the salt flats peter out, I begin to see shallow pools of water beside the road.  If the day is clear, they reflect clouds and sky.  I want to stop because the reflections of fenceposts wavering in the waters hold my gaze repeatedly.  The speed limit and soft shoulder say I cannot stop.  Then I look for the tall smokestack of the Kennecott open-pit copper mine, the largest in the world.  It is called Bingham Mine and the stack is known as the Garfield Stack.  This has intrigued me the most in all my years of driving this road, long before now.  On this last trip, leaving the Salt Lake City area, I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on a roadway that took me closer to the copper mine headquarters than ever; now I know how to get there and was told they do let visitors in for tours.  I want to see.  It is a massive mine, with miles of railroad cars on tracks down below the mind buildings.  The really incredible mine pit is hidden behind mountains rising up at the back of the stack; I saw it once from an airplane and was astounded by what the mountains hide.

As for distractions, the biggest one is what I encounter with each new car rental.  I don’t understand why every manufacturer had to make their dashboard so different, so foreign.  I’ve managed to find needed windshield wiper action and lights, sometimes get the gas cap on the wrong side when I pull up to a gas pump.  Lately the rentals have included keyless, push-button ignition.  I’m not sure yet as to whether I like this new format.  But, the latest rental car was a free upgrade to a bigger car, a Jeep Cherokee.  That dashboard took the cake.  So many choices, so many icons that were unfamiliar.  And these are the distractions to me, when you are whizzing down the highway and trying to make heads or tails of a function you didn’t think you’d need but now do and no way to just glance over and figure it out.  The windshield wiper controls were another mystery.  And the screens!

I thought about all this gizmo overload in the car and decided it is way too distracting for the uninitiated, and maybe even drivers in general:  screens broadcast different information and my thought is:  why am I supposed to be reading the car when I am driving the car?  I want it simpler, like wild sunflowers alongside the road, like the bigger picture of sky and clouds.  Or the distraction of a Rorschach sunset that sets my imagination in motion.

Two Years & Counting

Today is the second anniversary of the stem cell transplant I received. People in the medical and patient communities refer to the date of the transplant as a “new birthday.” I never quite cottoned to that idea, partially because I like the birthday I have already! I tried to see it from their perspective but after much reflection today, recalling as much as I can of what happened in late September 2015, I’ve come to a different understanding that speaks more truly to me. September 28, 2015 was a day of rebirth as the intentions of the actions taken that day were to retrieve my body quite literally from the brink of death.

When I was admitted to the hospital on September 25, 2015, it was to undergo a voluntary procedure of being given high dose chemotherapy intended to destroy my bone marrow in preparation for the transplant. The chemotherapy used is a derivative of mustard gas, no less. I agreed to be poisoned in order to live longer, hopefully in remission. In preparation for the transplant (ASCT), I first received 5-6 months of induction therapy, i.e., chemotherapy given to reduce the tumor burden. Because of the toxicity of even those first drugs, it is preferred that less than six months of induction therapy be given as it will weaken the stem cells that will eventually be harvested for the transplant. I was exhausted by the twice-weekly infusions that never quite got me into even a temporary remission before the ASCT.

As explained in earlier posts, my own stem cells were harvested from my bone marrow, cleansed of the cancer cells (hopefully) in them as they could not be subjected to the high dose chemotherapy meant to kill everything in my bone marrow. My harvested stem cells were preserved and stored for the transplant and, since there were enough left over, maybe future treatments requiring stem cells but not a transplant (in my case, due to my early relapse, I am ineligible for a second transplant).

The day of the high dose procedure, my daughter, son, and sister accompanied me. Because of the toxic drugs being used, the medical team wore HAZMAT outfits: heavy yellow rubber gowns, Plexiglas masks, heavy-duty rubber gloves and shoes. My family watched and wondered why, if it was all so toxic, neither they nor I were protected, but I think it was the handling of the drug that was most hazardous if there was a spill. For my part, I was told to chew on ice chips and suck on Italian ice pops for the entire time before and during in order to minimize the side effects to my mouth and entire gastrointestinal tract. It was hard to ice down my mouth for as long as I did, at least 60-90 minutes and even then I did not avoid the more severe side effects.  The high dose chemotherapy essentially burns and destroys many, many cells, not just the bad guys.

When the infusion was completed, and my numbed mouth felt normal, we all had nothing else to do but wait. Over the next three days my bone marrow would be completely obliterated, my immune system wiped out, my body left vulnerable and unable to make new blood cells, white cells, or anything else having to do with the bone marrow “factory.” There were three more days in which it was hoped most of the heavy chemo would have been metabolized out of my body and not interfere with the next step of the actual transplant. But, before the terrible becomes irreversible, the “healthy” stem cells need to be returned to set up their respective functions in the matrix of bone marrow that has now been effectively burned out so that a new immune system can be rebuilt quickly enough to stave off any disastrous consequences. I don’t remember how many tubes and IV poles were attached to me, but I had been reassured that potent antibiotics were onboard to prevent any life-threatening infections, the most serious complications of all that could lead to death, along with not having enough red blood cells, etc., etc. Steroids and fluids and who know what else were pumped into all the ports implanted in my body for these purposes. Fevers were monitored, as was everything that went in and out of my body.

The worst part of this process comes on about 5-7 days afterward and one can feel all kinds of terrible. I have a photo of me then, probably on one of the 3-5 days before the worst effects began to be felt. In it I still have hair, although it was already dying, and my skin tone is grey. The transfused stem cells, i.e., the actual transplant, need time to engraft in their familiar environment and begin functioning. Somewhere in those days I had several blood transfusions to replace blood cells that were too low or non-existent, but needed. And then I had a type of reaction that created excruciating pain in my GI tract whenever I swallowed. I remember telling my doctor it felt like I was swallowing big rocks that got stuck on the way down followed by another pain that felt like a sword slicing me in two from right to left that made me afraid to eat, drink, and swallow. At that point I believe I was given some fairly strong pain medications (something I only learned after reading my hospital notes a year later) and there are a number of days I don’t remember at all. Unfortunately, for my children, it was a harrowing experience and they remember much that I cannot and they worried mightily when they saw or heard me in that void I entered with the pain meds.

I was in the hospital three weeks and the last half was more tolerable than the first.

But, I had not been warned that the impact of the steroids would be to make it impossible for me to see/focus to read or write. This continued for weeks after I got home. The other side effect was the enormous amount of fluid pumped into me eventually made me feel and look like Jabba the Hutt on my discharge date; I lost 20 pounds of fluid over the next 3-4 days! I was weak, bald (but not really bothered by the baldness except to keep my head warm at night). Once at home I stayed in bed a lot the first weeks, barely able to drag myself up and down the stairs. Food tasted “not good” and this included coffee, my habit for at least 50 years. I ate rice, chicken broth, yogurt, and applesauce. I took 40-50 pills every day, hating every minute of that maneuver but knowing I had to do it. And, I experienced several weeks of the most terrifying nightmares I could imagine, strange but frightening enough that I began to dread going to sleep. Because I couldn’t see to write, I tried recording some of the details and thoughts I had then.

Eventually, I was able to push past the first few weeks of extreme weakness and begin taking small walks outside, even if only for a block. And, I had a protein drink I made every day that I believe made the biggest difference in my nutrition by literally feeding all the parts of my body trying to heal. It is plant-based and contains many substances that I knew were important building blocks for my blood cells. I mixed it with milk alternatives (almond, hemp; can’t do soy), frozen fruit, and chia seeds. I am convinced that when the doctor marveled at how well and quickly my blood values recovered it was due to this nutritional “medicine” I gave myself (and still do take).

So, what is the purpose of this long post recalling so much detail about what occurred two years ago? Some of what I’ve said is probably repetitive but not much. Today I needed to spend time alone in thinking very carefully about what I could recall because so much of what I want to recall is still lost to me. And, there is more going forward that is relevant to today, too. Last week I got the results of my annual cancer re-staging to see what’s really going on after 22 months of rigorous treatment. Since I did not achieve a remission with the ASCT and relapsed within a few months, all negatives for me then, I was put on a newly approved drug and regimen of oral three drug therapy at the end of 2015 in what was called “salvage” therapy. I have responded well to this treatment and although it is still considered salvage therapy and not maintenance therapy, I have achieved the strongest possible remission to date. Remission is not cure but it does mean a longer time without active disease. It is now possible that maybe, just maybe, I will be able to discontinue this salvage therapy at the next re-staging in the fall of 2018 and just be followed closely.

A reprieve from taking drugs is my fervent wish because the very drugs that keep the cancer at bay also have suppressed my immune system to the point of being extremely compromised. My goal is to rebuild my immune system healthily and with support from other forms of health care that I also believe in, too. I could throw some caution to the winds and just stop now, but the risk makes me hesitate. Although there is not yet a cure for myeloma, getting a long-term remission with little to no evidence of disease is what we are looking for in the coming year. I am changed in many ways by what happened and one of the thoughts I have come to is that the only way I got through most of the past two years was by staying as calm as I could, reading and researching on my own, weighing my choices with my own inner wisdom to come to the choices I made. In order to do the things I did, regardless of whether I was scared, in pain, or just a mess on any given day of treatment that didn’t go well, I had to push away/down a lot. And now, two years later, I realize more and more that a lot what was pushed away is now up for acknowledgement, too.

I truly believe that the entire experience was traumatic, deeply traumatic to my physical being in particular. I believe that I did, indeed, venture to the underworld in those days I cannot remember and that the nightmares were my psyche’s memory of the fear of dying that lurked, always, even if I willed it away as “not likely.” Today is strange because I feel what is sometimes called an “anniversary reaction” and it was not expected. Maybe now is the signal for me to begin writing the poems or prose that I kept track of with those notes and recordings. It is not writing I will post here because I envision this as part of a manuscript. I have much to say and need to say, even if only to myself. Thank you for listening today because I am alone, away from the ones, my children, whom I wish could talk to me about what they saw and felt. It was scary for them and some of what they’ve shared with me tells me more needs to be shared between us.

Today marks a rebirth, not a birthday. In the oldest stories, heroes and heroines go down to the underworld, even die, and once they have completed whatever task sent them there, they are resurrected, reborn, restored to the world and themselves. At least if they are successful in their journey. I was and am strong enough to have literally given birth to myself again through my own body’s cells and strength. I am grateful. I am sometimes sad. I am changed forever and still adapting. Aren’t we all, whatever our task, our heroic moment, our ability to keep standing even if dragged unwillingly into a new life?