Sunday, February 1, 2015

One year

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.

Desert walk, wintery sky
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.

Previously: Soup


  1. Your posts are so beautiful Ron. I think my thoughts about prayer are the same as yours, although I too always have misgivings about people that say they 'pray for me' in times of trouble. I think it's overused so much, especially on Facebook, that the statement has lost its meaning.

  2. You're always free to make overused statements mean what you want, and people can't stop you from doing that..

  3. So glad you had a nice visit with your daughter. She's your legacy.

  4. Ron, I grew up in a family that takes spiritualism to heart, especially the practice of it, and the power of a simple but earnest prayer on waking up and before bedtime is ingrained in me. It doesn't matter whether I pray to a personal or impersonal God. I rarely go to the temple. I pray whenever, wherever, in my own way. I find it reassuring and it gives me strength.

    The photographs are beautiful, as is your post. Thanks for sharing both.

  5. Too often I let my personal doubts torment me rather than just accepting them. there is some peace to be had but it is hard to claim it.

  6. Ron - thank you so much for sharing your life with us. I know it means a lot to many of us, and your writing is just so beautiful. I also subscribe to a "placeholder" as you so perfectly explained it, embracing the not-knowing and being okay with that. And I say "Thank you" to offers of prayer because I do believe in the power of positive thought and it makes the praying person feel like he's doing something when there is nothing, really, to be done. Other than sending love. I look forward to your posts.

  7. I bet it has been quite a year for you!

    Sounds like you had a nice visit with your daughter.

  8. Again you introduce me to some wonderful new music --and a new way to listen to the music of the spheres as well. You are a blessing my friend.

  9. Ron, again another gracious post. Glad you had a good visit with your daughter. I'm pretty sure you don't care for awards, but I did nominate you for an inspiring blogger one cause you have been an inspiration during this journey.

  10. I enjoy your blog posts tremendously. You have a nice way of writing to the heart of things.