|Rain on the prickly pear|
Today marks an anniversary of sorts. A year ago I was just out of surgery, most of a malignant tumor removed from my brain, I was yet to meet the oncologists who would get me started on chemo and radiation. Mostly I was amazed that I felt few effects from having my cranium cracked open, my gray matter invaded by a team of neurosurgeons I hardly knew, then stapled back together, soon to be sent back home.
My memories of that time are marked by the sound of cactus wrens outside my bedroom, chattering away each morning as I welcomed the new day, sometimes after an endless night of dreadful dreams and sleeplessness. I read Anne Lamott’s little book about three kinds of prayer (thanks, help, wow), which made me both laugh and cry. And I marveled at the flowering plants sent by a family friend. Here we were alive together.
In the year that has passed, I have stepped through a variety of unexpected portals that have left me not a lot wiser, though less easily surprised. As one example, I had become not a very strong advocate of prayer (characterizing it glibly as “talking to someone who isn’t there”), but as friends, family, even strangers offered to pray for me, I couldn’t say no thank you – partly out of a wish not to seem churlish, partly because I felt it could do no harm. In time, I realized there is something to what is called the power of prayer. It shows up in the practice of empathy—which has benefits all around.
Cancer plays a couple of tricks on you. It makes you super aware of yourself. What is that odd bruise on my leg? Why are the scratches on my hand taking so long to heal? Is my unsteady sense of balance getting worse? It can also make you super aware of others who are obviously struggling with ill health and ill fortune—whether you read about them in the news or see them on the street.
|Eye out for coyotes|
At some point I realized that everybody, whether it’s obvious or not, feels or has felt or is soon to feel real pain—over which they may have no control. The people around me going through checkout at Vons won’t know that I am looking at them this way, but it transforms them for me into human beings, not just obstacles in my way or less than perfect members of the human race.
This is so obvious I don’t know how I lived 73 years without getting it. I used to think of myself as a pretty empathic guy. Maybe even better than others at imagining myself in their shoes. Turns out empathy is about other things. For one thing, it helps banish the isolation and loneliness that illness brings by offering a simple mental leap that connects one with others, and you begin to see how illness does not make a person special. We’re all in this together.
Empathy, when practiced as a form of prayer (“Thy will be done on this one, but I’m living in hope right now for x, who is really hurting—as you well know—and what everyone wants for them is some relief and healing”) gives me something to do when faced with my own powerlessness.
|Sunset from my daughter's plane|
In connection with this subject, you won’t hear me speak much of God, because I don’t know Who/What that word means beyond being a placeholder for what is beyond anyone's understanding. On that score, I continue to subscribe to the belief that those who know don’t say and those who say don’t know.
At the same time I will give consideration to the insights of others. Here metaphors come in handy, as do wordless experiences like stepping outside at night under a desert sky to be awestruck by the display of moon and stars. Or to listen to music that convinces me it embodies the living playful spirit of the Universe—the music of the spheres.
My daughter has been here this week, and her presence lightens my days. What intelligence, cleverness, thoughtfulness, and laughter wrapped up in one human being. And after a week of clouds and drizzle, welcome sunshine has returned before she is booked to return to the snow-covered East.
And so it goes.
I’m closing again with a jazz video suggested by the one qualified and well-loved musician in our family. This one for jazz-rock fusion lovers, “Lingus,” by Snarky Puppy.
Anyone with another favorite, let me know.