Mapping a New Landscape

When I was a girl, every Saturday morning breakfast was punctuated by my father pushing his chair back from the table, standing, and announcing that he was headed out to “survey the estate.” Our “estate” was quite small — the size of an average back yard in the city — but luscious, with tended perennial beds, brick paths, a secret Japanese garden with a winding stream and waterfall, a couple of small brick terraces, climbing vines, tall hedges, a fig tree, and a hand-carved grape arbor. I loved this garden because it was cool and beautiful and welcoming, but more importantly, because it lived and breathed a family. Not only did we spend summer days and nights here, but it existed because we existed. Every flower and blade of grass, every scraggly shrub starter, every brick, every hand-patinaed piece of statuary, every pond liner and edging stone and wooden arbor joist had been planted and carved and laid and edged and watered and tended by my visionary parents, with the aid of three fledgling wheelbarrow drivers. I’ve lived in gardens ever since those early years, but my first remains the gold standard. Not because it was prettier or more lush or contained a magical variety of flora, but because watching an ordinary family create that garden taught me just how much influence we have over the landscapes of our lives. I grew up believing that anything was possible with a little sweat, imagination, some scavenging, a tool or two, and someone to help with the wheelbarrow.

And my life has been very much like this. When I’ve acted on this belief, some pretty magical things have happened. I’ve always claimed to be lucky, to be blessed, to have escaped turmoil, despair, poverty. I’ve been pretty good at remembering that I have everything I need to live, create, and love, even if I can’t immediately remember which drawer or which recess of my brain has it safely tucked away. It has been, most certainly, a wondrous life and, despite a few sorrows, I could hardly have penned it any better.

And now at 57, too old to be tragic and too young to be inevitable, I have cancer, and though I am quite often irritatingly adept at seeing things coming, I did not see this.

Today will be hot, but the sky is dishing out a soul-stirring bluster. Yesterday I watched a tree throw her leaves in an arc that crossed a lane, fluttering madly in a last dance. This morning the walnut and elm on opposite sides of the garden are tossing their dual ingredients into the tango in swirls like fall, and it feels both happy and sad to see a summer breeze awash with still-green leaves. No longer green myself, I still feel the flutter and recognize change.

And so I look at the bountiful landscape of a life and wrestle to place my changing self into the life I’ve loved. Though my prognosis is good, I’m irritated that my future, which should map out genetically at a good thirty years (still peanuts!) will now be measured and celebrated in five year increments — barely time enough to make a bucket list, especially one scheduled around chemo treatments. And I’m irritated that my gurus, carefully chosen by the matching of heart to soul, will now be peopled with strangers selected by paper credentials and calendar availability, and that they will have as much say, and perhaps more, in the way I live my days from sunup to sundown for the rest of my life. And I’m irritated that cancer so often attacks women in the very organs that give and sustain life — Karma, wake the hell up!!!

Of course the bottom line is that the landscape of my life has also changed, and shockingly so. The way I look at my days has changed. The way I think and experience has changed. In a way, I’m okay with that. But I need to start over like a child with my trowel in the dirt, learning the feel of both peat and clay, the difference between nectars and nettles, how to map paths around this sinkhole or that hornet’s nest. Landscape, I want to look you full in the eye with my colored lenses off and my antennae roused. I need to know you intimately so that I can meet you on my terms. And yes, I will bitch and moan. I will withdraw. I will snap. I will be preoccupied. I will cry. I will cling. I will write more than I will speak. I will not wear the smiley face. I will be unpredictable, just like this disease. Just like this changing landscape that looks so foreign to me in this moment. But in the end, there will be beauty.

I want to be Zen again, one day, but make no mistake that this time I will be Zen with a dragon tattoo, really good hiking boots, and backup. So please pardon me while I raise a little hell and clear the nettles.

Rousillon

Landscape of Rousillon, France
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Howl

Coyotes are moving in. I haven’t seen one yet, even though our garden along the wooded creek provides some prime hors d’oeuvres, but I’m getting the emails every couple of days now. “Coyote spotted on Cassamia Glen. Coyote StareHe was so thin he walked through the bars of my iron gate.” “Coyote spotted on Forest Drive, trotting down the middle of the street in broad daylight. A neighbor’s dog barked like mad, and the coyote never even glanced over.” Phantoms are walking among us, their wildness brushing too close to our cultivated lives, and I can’t help feeling a little like Harry Potter spying the wispy cloaktrails of a dementor.

Back in the 80’s when I owned every Molly-Ringwold-worthy funky pin to be found at Wal-Mart, I had a cute little pewter rendition of a howling coyote. He seemed so whimsically free-spirited and a little like me with a heart full of song and a soul full of wanderlust. A cocker spaniel with a great set of lungs. Youthful myopia, I loved you so! Wiser now with better glasses and living in an increasingly cat-free neighborhood, coyotes simply suck, and their eerie howl is about as close to the tolling of the bell as it gets.

Coyotes, unlike me, have no fear. Airplanes are hitting them on runways. What living being can you name that will stand its ground while a 900,000 pound 747 bears down screaming at 130 decibels? No wonder the frenzied barking of a domesticated golden retriever doesn’t warrant so much as a glance.

I have fear. I feel it when I think of the friend who died on Tuesday after my husband held his hand and laughed goodbyes with him, less than 30 days after the doctors saw cancer. I feel it when I think of a friend who died of unseen injuries on Sunday, 20 days after walking away from totaling her car and so grateful to be alive. I feel it when I think of my father-in-law, dead only 11 days after discovering lung cancer, or my mother, dead in 6 months from a condition considered “easily controlled by drugs,” or my too-many friends seeking life through chemotherapy and other poisons. Coyotes are everywhere — hungry, unafraid, and thin enough to pass through our gates.

And I want to learn how to beat the coyote at his own game. I want to learn that laser beam focus, that unflinchable exterior, that iron-clad intent. And most of all, I want to learn to stop being so “nice”, so allowing, so patient, so quiet, so willing to take a back seat, so ready to fight for others but not for myself. I’m not there yet, but I’m in training, and the coyotes are taunting me to give it a go. There will be howling.

Howl, Mosaic Art by Pamela Goode

Proliferative Rat Bastards

I don’t know how long I’ve had breast cancer, only that today was the first day I woke up knowing it. Today was the first day I opened my eyes aware that something inside me wanted more, and it wasn’t love or inspiration or creation or enlightenment. Today was the first day I opened my eyes aware that something inside me isn’t “me” at all, and I’m telling you, it’s a total Sigourney Weaver moment, but without the big paycheck.

There are many qualities I have to reach for on a daily basis, because living outside of myself does not come so easily for me. My True Self is 99% sensitivity and introspection. I see in others what I know in myself, and I try to serve as a partner along the path. And if I’m all about looking inward, how did I not see this? How did I not feel this? How the hell did I grow this, and allow it to feast on me?

There are many things I’ve worried about in my life, and breast cancer was never, ever, ever even a blip on the radar. I don’t have a single risk factor for breast cancer. I’ve taken diligent precautions in other areas that were much bigger threats to my health. I don’t even think mammograms hurt — piece of cake. Although I hadn’t had one in a while. Not for any good reason — is there a good reason? The last thing my beloved doctor of 12 years said to me before she left the building a month ago and joined a “boutique” practice was “Go downstairs and make an appointment for a mammogram before you leave the building.” And I did. If I could afford the $2500 annual fee, I would walk into her new office and hug her big.

And this is what it feels like: Strength. Calmness. Hysteria. Dissolution. Resolve. Lack of Focus. Resignation. Belief. Giving Up. Anxiety. Muteness. Dirtiness. Openness. Love. Hate. Love. All on the fast track and vibrating like a loaded spring inside me, blocking the pathways between sensing and knowing, between realizing and speaking, between the intent and the act.

I’m not going to turn this blog into a cancer diary, because this damnable grabby greedy rat bastard stealer of life won’t be with me for long. But he has forced himself uninvited and unwanted onto my path, and he will change me a bit just as love and childbirth and friends and Italy and art have changed me, and I will continue to scour the corners of my psyche to see what’s hiding and what needs the light of day for a better understanding. So yeah, more of the same. But I’ve got my growl on now.