Let me start by saying that this is a story, not so much a blog post. And it’s a long one, with many parts. Some of them public, relevant. Others, private, unimportant. Here I offer you part one, an unfinished excerpt from a longer book of essays that I have been working on for the past year. I welcome your comments.
Most lessons up to this point in my life had begun In Media Res, a literary term meaning “In the middle of.” In narrative or storytelling technique, the recommended practice of beginning an epic or other fictional form of writing by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events is often the most engaging way to get the attention of the reader. The situation described is an extension of some prior events that have yet to be explored, and will be developed later in the action. The narrative then goes directly forward and the exposition of any of the important earlier events is supplied by flashbacks, or by a more fluid, loose movement of time. The concept seems to have arguably originated with Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad, for example, begins dramatically and in dramatic sword-and-sandal fashion with the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon during the Trojan War. Naturally there are many riveting events that led up to that war that were not supplied at the beginning of the tale, and thus there is much to reverse, show, and tell. But the war is the starting point.
In modern times, this simple idea of “start where you are” is the common and somewhat nonsensical parlance for this concept, a bit of pop-psychology suggesting that we can only meet what is in front of us with the current tools we possess, that there is no real first lesson in this life of how to be human and navigate difficulty, relationship, trauma and so on.
It's early October 2013, and like the Iliad, I have both a lot of information to synthesize and the beginning of my own potentially perilous fight, but I am also missing crucial details that I need to move forward. In no uncertain terms, this new phase of my life will either paralyze me, kill me, or motivate me toward more clarified action. Learning the real lessons of a life is excruciating, humbling, ego-bashing. And it is one of the things that I am still, have been, most in love with for all of my life. Because in addition to being all of the above, it is also inspiring, enlivening, and totally rewarding. One of the things I have found to be true about this pop-up kind of in media res thing in my life is that I cannot expect it to be fun. Or joyful, or even straightforward. What I can expect is some serious give and take, some of my more troublesome personal character traits to be revealed, and many opportunities for growth to present themselves. Perhaps even some chances at redemption. Growing pains. You know the terminology. But that is the truth. Growth hurts. The best I can hope for in this case, the case of being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40, is that it be interesting.
I was in the midst of teaching a morning yoga asana immersion that started at 6am during that October, and when I walked in and saw my co-teacher and dear friend Monicka that morning, her eyebrows went up, asking. Her face already showed a mask of pain as she tenderly asked me about the biopsy. Her beloved favorite Aunt had died very young the year we first met and became friends from this very same disease, seven years prior. There were stories buried deep within so many people about this process, so much I had been unaware of due to my own stories along the rocky path of being in a body. It was difficult to find that although I had imagined myself present for my nearest friends, I still did not know true empathy.
I tried to keep my mind off my right breast, which seemed to suddenly be seething with wiggly creatures in my now overactive imagination. Barely able to focus, a husk version of me showed up to teach, and thematically that week, if I said anything interesting at all, I believe I may have discussed the idea that our thinking mind does not always give access to higher reasoning and that movement and the practiced art of attention were excellent doorways in to a deeper sense of knowing. Sometimes I actually resemble our hero, the modern yoga teacher, spouting my own brand of blathery pop-culture nonsense. I am hard to listen to sometimes. And really I am just trying to keep my powder dry. It is all an act; I am desperate to get that phone call saying that it is benign, and have it all be over.
By the next morning, most of my more nervous friends had called or messaged in some way to gently start to ask if I had heard the results yet. It was a continuation of my realization that other people were feeling anxious about it, too. I had been so wrapped up in my own concerns and experience that I didn't even realize that telling your dearest ones that you had just gone in for a respectable biopsy of suspiciously abnormal tissue could instigate all of their own internal torrents of worry, grief, and memories of those in their lives that had suffered this or something like it. A chain reaction, set off by their care and love for me, had been set in motion, and those anxious text messages and calls were the writing on the wall.
Jeannie was at the yoga center the next day after I taught my noon class. How was I? My genius thematic content for that day: I talked about waiting.
1. inactive state of repose, until something expected happens.
2. to be available or in readiness, to await.
3. to delay/postpone.
4. to look forward to eagerly
She asked if I had heard yet, her mouth pursed into a small “o” shape, as though anticipating a blow to the head. When I told her no, and asked if she thought maybe they left me a voicemail message, she looked squarely at me and said, "They don't leave messages about cancer on your voicemail."
Defeated, I went to my car and sat, stared for a long time down the residential street. I held my finger suspended over the 7, the last number of the Breast Health Center’s phone number, staring. After about five minutes I finally dialed and asked for the nurses. The 70's song "Up, Up and Away" was on the hold line as they transferred me. When the nurse picked up, I gave all the compulsory information, then asked if she had my results back yet. Her name was Sally. She paused. "Oh, yes. They are right here. Gosh I am sorry. Didn't anyone call you yet?" No, I told her. No one had called me yet. "Oh, well honey I am so sorry to say it, but the biopsy came back malignant. It is showing that you have DCIS, which means ductal carcinoma in situ. Its early stage breast cancer." Silence.
A woman with a tan and white Jack Russell Terrier walked in front of my car, reached into her yellow coat pocket and produced a tiny dog treat. They stopped on the corner in front of my car, and seeing I was on the phone, she gave me a wan smile. All I could think was “Oh my God. I knew it.” Because I did. Looking back, I realized I had been tracking that right breast for a good part of my adult life, going in to see specialists as far back as 1999 for what I thought were lumps. I wasn’t making it up, not at all. I have what they call fibrocystic breasts, and it is really common to have tissue like this, and typically there isn’t anything wrong with it except that you end up scared witless about breast cancer much more than people without this kind of tissue. And because if you are diligent with your self-exams, as I have always been, you constantly feel lumps. The same ones you always felt…or are they? The kind that grow larger and more tender with your menstrual cycle, and shrink back to normal when it stops. Once in a while you will get a good freak-out going, sure that this time, that lump is surely something. I guess somewhere in me I was always worried about getting this, on the subconscious level, either that or I always knew I would get it, always identifying in a dark corner with some wrongness that I could not pin down or name. Did I have an inherent fear of disease? Did I look down the long tunnel of my eyes and see a future of illness for myself? Never, not once. So why was I now recognizing that I had been a life-long hyper-vigilant breast-self-examiner on high paranoia alert? I have heard this before from other women, women that said they just knew this would be what happened to them, long before they actually knew it. That they lived constantly with a buried awareness of the version of them that had it, and the version of them that didn’t. I did not know that this was true for me, except that weirdly I did. To find out what you don’t know by finally finding out that you don’t know it is somewhat frightening—what other not-knowings are under the surface? Not in terms of disease, but in terms of self-awareness? Suddenly my long-term not-knowing had a shape. And a name.
What does it mean? I asked the nurse on the phone. She said that it meant that I would need to see a surgical oncologist right away, and did I want a referral? Somehow through my confusion I managed to say that I wanted to see the breast specialist that I had seen in 2009 for the most recent lump-scare, the one that ordered my first mammogram. The nurse put me on hold, called her office, and made the appointment for me. Now that was service. The time she scheduled it for was inconvenient; I said another time would be better. She said “Sweetie whatever you think you have going on at that time, this is going to be much more important and you will need to cancel it. In this process, the appointments get made and you simply go to them. This isn’t the dentist. This is cancer.” A little bit of something like a gag reflex came from my throat, not yet identifiable as a weep, and I felt myself step onto an unseen conveyor belt. I choked it back and finished the call, asking if the results had been sent to Max, my physician. Her voice sounded like it came through the speaker at the drive in movies. I hung up the phone, still sitting in my car on the most beautiful, impossibly blue October afternoon, and stared at the fractals of changing leaves at SE 25th and Ivon St. as the kaleidoscopes of my eyes burned, stung, lost focus in the blurry field of tears and nausea that was welling from a deep place I did not know I possessed. I wonder about what the sobs must have sounded like to that woman in the yellow coat with the little dog, since she stood still on the corner with her back to me, her dog waiting patiently for the treat she still held aloft while she talked on the phone. I got out of the car and walked back to the yoga center to see Jeannie.
She had been fussing and worrying over me for days, and so when I left work, I told her she would be the first to know. She was the first, and on such a tender day for her too, for her father had passed away exactly one year ago on that same day. I knew she was feeling grief and sadness already, and so when I walked in and saw her face and said it out loud for the first time, she stood up, put her arms around me and held me close. I think we held onto each other in the same way at that moment, sharing a silent moment of pain, snot in the hair. She did not say a word. Now, I have done some crying, but I’m still not sure that it has ever encompassed that many emotions all at one time before. It just came and came like sheets of water in a storm, until I was just utterly shredded, couldn’t breathe, waves of what I can now identify as grief, despair, fear, longing, desperation, loneliness, loss; it was all present there in those moments of feeling totally unmoored. Jeannie still didn’t say a single word. She just stood and held on and let my seams unravel.
Crying produces an exhaustion like little else. Finally I slid down the wall to the floor with my head in my hands, wiped my nose, and looked up at her. She said what has come to be my most favorite thing that people can say in this scenario, another sentence I have learned to offer when there is pain and suffering in someone else: “I’m so sorry that you have to go through this.” Not that it’s not fair. Not you’re going to be fine. Not thank God you caught it early, or that its so great that its small, or not to worry, or that you barely even have cancer. But I’m sorry that you are suffering, are going to have to suffer, with this. Because it got right to the heart of what I think my main fears were, before I even knew them consciously. I was afraid of the suffering that comes before death. Certainly my life had not been all ponies and rainbows, and I had enough scars both emotionally and otherwise to tell some good stories, but this was another thing. I had absolutely no idea what I was up against, lacking crucial information as it were, and thus the unknown was scaring the shit out of me. I saw only my mind’s-eye images of friends I had known that had gone through chemotherapy, taken enormous amounts of drugs and steroids in a never-ending cascade of pills and poisons, one to counteract the side effects of the one that came before it, and so on. I vowed to stay off the internet, a vast and lawless place where all comers can say whatever they like with whatever authority they deem to be their domain. It’s a terrifying place to be terrified.
Without missing a beat, Jeannie took my phone from my hand, dialed a mysterious code and started speaking. “She needs to switch to the unlimited minutes plan, please,” she told the person on the other end. Evidently she knew that I was going to be on the phone a lot in the coming weeks. I still maintain that she is a genius, because it turns out that I had already used all my minutes and still had eight more days until my next billing cycle. This seems pedestrian, unless you have ever been billed for going over your minutes. She has been right about a lot of things. We both felt that we had accomplished something besides crying a river in the hallway during that half hour, and since that afternoon I logged over 900 minutes on that phone in just one month. Which is in no way representative of my norm and thus if you get one takeaway from this, know that you’re definitely going to need more minutes.
She told me that I might probably wake up in the dark that night, flipping out. It was fair warning, because it is exactly what happened. I lay in the darkness, turning the events over and over in my head, as I have now done dozens of times, on multiple nights of insomnia that have plagued me since this happened. This was too close. My close friend Meredith going through the same thing the year before was too close. I was the one that accompanied my friends to their terrifying doctor’s appointments, not this way around. Just weeks before I had taken one of them to the ER! It wasn’t that I thought I was so special that I didn’t get sick, it just seemed off somehow. If I wasn’t strong for everyone else, who would be strong for me? I often couldn’t go back to sleep so I chanted my mantras over and over and prayed to be able to surrender to the forces that were moving into my life in this way, and through the grace of my Guru and the holy names that I attempt to chant with attention and devotion, that I might somehow be able to bring God more to the forefront of my life.
In my spiritual tradition, we aspire to surrender ourselves fully to God so that we might come to be fully dependent on and a servant of God, to become instruments for that Divine service. That we will become one in purpose with God, while retaining our unique and individual Atma, or self. I have always had fear of actually praying for this, because what if it happened? I wouldn’t be able to be "me" as I had constructed "me" anymore, a fully independent entity, doing everything for myself with nothing but my own self interests. This is precisely the problem of human life, our intense self-interest, and thus the reasoning behind the aspiration to surrender in bhakti. My fears grew a little smaller in those early hours, and I started to pray for it then. Before this, I wasn’t sure that I wanted it, or that it was even possible for me to want it, but now I was starting to understand. And now I did want it. Or at least I finally wanted to want it. Though I was most certainly an agent of action, but also since my life was most clearly not my own, it seemed fitting that I would at least aspire to learn how to live with less self-interest and try to seek the shelter of this Divine Love of God that I claimed to have faith in. Seems simple, but it’s a scary thing to ask for. Existing to love God is categorically different than existing for your own small self and ego. Never in my life have I felt so small and afraid of suffering, and yet when I chanted and cried and prayed for what was truly in my best interest, there was a strange sense of freedom, of longing, of belonging.
Yoga tradition, and the bhakti tradition especially have always known that things aren’t what they appear to be—the objective world is not a place where something that is made of subjectivity—us—will ever find real happiness. We think that matter or objects are innately loveable in some way, but that is false. It is we who have given them that value, entered into those material forms with our very self to give them meaning and purpose and life. Without the animating force, which is consciousness, the matter is without meaning, just a bunch of useless parts to a useless machine lying on the carpet. But love is a very special machine, one that can still live. Even without some of its parts.
Spiritual practice, if it is truly ego-effacing as the yoga traditions intend for it to be, seeks to uncover that which everyone can agree upon is an ideal way of existing as a human being. All saints and celebrated persons to one extent of another have the shared quality of rising above their humanity, of realizing their full potential in terms of losing their attraction to the stuff of the five senses, to pleasures, to material things. These practices focus on the very things that, if polled, most every human could agree upon as an ideal in human life—to rise above passions and preferences, the death of the ego, the end of selfishness and greed, a competition-less society. Possession of these qualities tends to make one very attractive to others, I dare even say powerful in the minds of others, because they uphold something true and innate in human life: that we are more than the sum of these parts, that the theory of living with less might allow us to finally find the more that we are. Think Jesus Christ, The Buddha, Rumi, Caitanya Mahaprabhu—the list is formidable. In order to use human life to its fullest potential, we must finally learn the truth that we are only part human, and part something else.
In December of 2013, a taxi driver in Las Vegas named Gerardo Gamboa found an unmarked sack of money on the backseat of his cab after his fare had exited the vehicle and he had headed back to dispatch. This driver turned the money into his boss, who in turn found the man and returned the money to him. This made the nightly news. “Honest Taxi Driver in Vegas Returns $300K To Fare.” How could such a character trait be possible in a human being in this culture? “My dignity is not for sale, and that's the way I am. That's the way our parents taught us when I was a kid," said Gamboa. We celebrate this kind of honesty because face it, we value this kind of rightful action highly as a species, and we know it, even if we can’t actually emulate it. Why else would we put it on TV for all to relish, gawk at, disbelieve?
Maybe we also strive in our spiritual practices to exemplify and do what these celebrated persons did, or at least what this simple honest cab driver did, to reach for the ideal in human life. We know we are capable of this, but often do not know how to practice it. This is where good, honest, loving guidance from one whose heart knows the way is essential to our progress. By this I mean teachers. Maya Angelou says it this way: “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.” Thank god someone is helping me hone my radical selfishness into something useful.
And so what about my story? What about this thing we divined through somewhat magical means, dug for, and decided to call cancer? It did not enter in a blinding, bloody flash of painful justice, nor in a stealthy siege of thousands by dusk. It was not a cavalry of soldiers swarming over the hills and valleys of my flesh, angry. No, it was a quiet, minute question mark, a solitary thing, waiting like a blinking cursor. The body knows when something has moved in that is unwanted, and often knows when to attack and when to simply stand vigil. Or when, perhaps, to make a fort. Tiny calcium deposits like miniscule little bricks being laid by invisible vigilant bricklayers, these forts are usually found in areas of the body where cells are being replaced by something sinister, or are dividing at an unusual pace, or are dying off more quickly than normal. A cluster, if you will, a great defensive wall built by the innate intelligence of the body as if to say to the unassuming, blinky little question mark, “We have you surrounded, surrender your weapons. That is, if you actually have any.” Which is to say that often intruders are not menacing, but maybe just lost. Or perhaps simply confused.
The intruder is often so quiet and small that it is at first undetected and often, not even menacing. I remember watching a creepy late 80’s straight-to-video film starring Gary Busey called Hider in the House, where he plays a recently released psych patient who sneaks into the attic of a newly constructed home, and lives in the confines of that small space unbeknownst to the family that eventually occupies the house. At first he is just quiet and harmless, sneaking around and watching them, as though on a television show that is real, but then as the film progresses he starts to lurk in more compromising situations, and meddle, seemingly unable to keep himself away from the family he lives above, especially the mother, who was played by Mimi Rogers. He truly does not want to misbehave, to harm them, but cannot hold back and begins to insinuate himself into their lives in ever-voyeuristic and dangerous ways, though he is still unknown to them. They still do not suspect that he actually lives inside their house in his weird little attic fort, and it is only when they start to grow suspicious, to take action, that he grows increasingly threatening and violent, and ultimately murderous.
Is illness also this way, the quiet question mark sort that sneaks in, at first harmless and undetected, taking up residence in your flesh? That begins primarily as life trying to preserve itself, your healthy body simply the hostile territory it must conquer in order to carry out that most basic need that all living things share, to simply exist?
Nonetheless there it is, a small fort of concrete and calcium surrounding a quiet question mark of a disease-waiting-to-happen tumor. Suppose I tell you that for me, this did not signal the beginning of the end when I heard it, though it terrified me in ways I still do not have words for. Suppose I did not immediately envison myself as the possessor of a malignant tumor, never mind as its creator. Somewhere, while I was so busy being so busy, perhaps I maybe just left the side door open a smidge? Or a window open overnight into my pink-and-red insides, and someone snuck in? Would you believe me if I told you that I did not fear death?