Sunday, May 18, 2014

A delicate balance

It’s been a week of chemo again, and that means fatigue and mental waywardness—and food tasting like moldy cardboard. Meanwhile, the desert spring has delivered a heat wave—103 degrees on Friday—which leaves us housebound with the AC running. Our thoughts naturally turning to refrigeration, we spend a couple hours cleaning the kitchen refrigerator. After getting it gleaming again, we open the door at odd times just to admire it. There are those who would argue that this is spiritual work. I’m not so sure, but I’m not dismissing the possibility.

On Sunday, Mother’s Day, my wife and I drove over to Morongo Valley, where you can shop for cacti and succulents at a roadside place called the Cactus Mart (the pics here today are from there). It was a windy day, and after wobbling around with the help of a walking stick I used to use for hikes, and losing my sun hat a couple times, I settled in the car again and dozed. My wife came home with four talavera pots, empty since she got them from me at Christmas, now proudly home to handsome spiny specimens of desert life.

The rest of the week, I unofficially declared a moratorium on useful activity and spent two days flat on my back in bed with a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. And I listened with headphones to Oscar Peterson and a jazz quartet led by a saxophonist more people should know, Dale Fielder.

Before bed in the evening, we watch old episodes of Lord Peter Wimsey and Margaret Rutherford as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in Murder Most Foul. And one afternoon I take enjoyment in a 1950s western, dozens of which can be found on youtube.

Westerns, classic crime fiction, and listening to jazz may not sound like coming to terms with a debilitating form of cancer, but I’m learning that everyone finds their own way through the portals of illness. Even while the thoughtful and inspirational words of writers like Barbara Brown Taylor (An Altar in the World) and Philip Simmons (Learning to Fall) cover some of the same ground and cite the same sources, you’re a stranger in your own strange land, without a good map, making much of it up as you go.

Part of that process is sloughing off old selves, and the hold they have on you depends much on what you needed them for in the first place—and for how long. There are old habits you can even identify and understand the history of, but understanding doesn’t free you from them. They stick like glue.

Someone on FB posts a long rant by Anne LaMott this week on the persistence of perfectionism as a habit that rarely serves any useful purpose. And I laugh when she encourages readers to make messes and to scorn the criticism of people who easily find fault. The laughter, I find, is more effective than any effort of will power. After a lifetime of living up to standards borrowed from others—and forgetting they were borrowed, not bought and paid for—I could use some more laughter. The kind that comes from looking in a mirror and saying, “That’s not me at all. What was I thinking?”

Even as I write these weekly installments, my reading of Taylor, Simmons, and others has me questioning whether this journal is just some ego trip. You can’t go on pubic display without wondering what kind of fool you’re making of yourself. And I hear the voices of my upbringing, which praised kids who were “seen and not heard.”

But I’m coming to believe that respectful silence is best reserved for the Deity, before whom I could make a greater effort to just shut up and try listening for a change. For everyone else, I’m trusting that we need each other as humans, and all our talk helps keep us that way. Even as we may be tripping over our egos, the paths we share lead where grace can find us. It’s a delicate balance.

The day could come, I guess, when I can even tolerate the querulous yapping of the three dogs next door while I’m writing this. And I’m wondering what that would be like. But for the time being, I will be happy to just finish this paragraph and then lie down with maybe another book to pass the afternoon, while waiting for the side effects of the meds to wear off in the coming days. A call yesterday reminds me that I have another MRI scheduled for early next month. And so life goes on.


  1. Sometimes I think a habit borrowed long enough becomes yours to own. At least it seems that way for me. I find that I too am liking laughter more and more as I get older. Lana has brought that out in me. I didn't used to be that way. Too wet for cacti down here I'm afraid.

  2. As the humorist once said, Laughter the Best Medicine, a book by Robert Holden, and brings to mind Bennett Cerf and Art Linkletter. A laugh a Day keeps the doctor away, etc., and it has to help in healing, too.

  3. "After getting it gleaming again, we open the door at odd times just to admire it" had me smiling for I often do the same after cleaning the refrigerator. I think keeping anything clean is spiritual work. Ron, I for one don't think your journal is an ego trip. I enjoy reading, and learning from, your thoughts on many issues that resonate with me.

  4. I appreciate your journal and am glad you are continuing it. Cancer changed my life in so many ways. I was diagnosed 15 years ago with prostate cancer and after surgery, cancer remained. Initially, doctors thought it unlikely I would make it more than 3-4 years. I went through great despair. But so much that worried me back then has yet to come to pass and what did happen, was not as bad as I feared.

    I still have cancer and I still dread my bone scans, MRI's, and PSA tests but I learned to live with it and enjoy the present. Your weekly journal tells me you are on a good path and I look forward to future installments.

  5. Thanks, Richard, Prashant, Oscar, Charles and others who have left supportive thoughts here. They are much needed and appreciated.

  6. Ron, you'rean inspiration. Oscar Peterson is a favorite here too!

  7. As usual you impress me so much by both your rage against the dying of the light and your stoicism. An unusual combination in any circumstance. Writing as beautifully as you do must give you solace. The words always help.

  8. "I’m trusting that we need each other as humans, and all our talk helps keep us that way. Even as we may be tripping over our egos, the paths we share lead where grace can find us. It’s a delicate balance." Beautifully said, Ron. Your journal is a gift.

  9. There's not much laughter heard in the oncologist's office, but there was when my husband and I were there waiting for his appointments. We got some odd looks. I think it was assumed we weren't taking his treatment seriously enough, when what we were taking seriously was his living of his life.

    1. Both of my oncologists have a wonderful sense of humor. I am so thankful.