Into the Jungle

It’s been about a month since I learned I was joining a new organization with difficult credentials for admittance—The Cancer Patient Club. It’s like walking into a world both familiar and foreboding, but at least there’s lots of others vacationing there. 

I suppose it’s strange to call it vacationing, but for me, like a vacation, it is a place I’ve gone that feels separated from the usual way of living life. It’s certainly not like going to Hawaii for sun and sand and little drinks with umbrellas, but like an adventurous vacation, it does interrupt the familiar, everyday routine of life. It’s an abrupt break from going about life in its more predictable patterns. And there is extreme value in that. 

Five days after my bilateral mastectomy, I felt well enough to join my online Writer’s Group where we were talking about how easy it is to not write—to keep slogging along accomplishing all the things we usually accomplish and play the roles where we already know the lines. And yet when we do that, we feel restless or guilty for betraying ourselves from the writing we really yearn to do. A member of the group said her therapist called this abdication of our soul like taking a familiar superhighway, that’s easy and fast, where you can drive on automatic, following the flow of traffic. But to take instead the unfamiliar or even the unknown path, is the path of the writer and for me, the path of being a cancer patient. I’m writing a new story and the new story is writing me. 

I see this new path as carving a way into the Jungle. It’s thick with vines, undergrowth, rotting tree trunks, murky water, strange bird calls, monkeys swinging on the overstory. Like entering the world of cancer patient, it causes pause. But it is interesting, intriguing and if one can get past the heavy laden specter of death that surrounds the Big C word, it can pull you into a world that opens your heart. 

I’ve had a few times in the jungle. Once in Belize a local guide was walking us past the high domed hills of termites, pointing out the long line of army ants carrying chiseled pieces of leaves back to their nest, and warning us of the dangerous bees in the tree overhead. As we dove further along the narrow trail, he perked his head up at a new sound and we went off trail to follow the cry of the howler monkey with its strange lion-like call. As the monkey surveyed us from overhead and swung closer for a look, I took a backstep to see it more clearly and a long thin frond from a waist high plant literally suctioned-cupped its way around my arm. I was aghast, thinking it was injecting poison in me or something and peeled it off my arm, leaving a line of red dots where it had attached itself like an octopus tentacle. I showed the guide, thinking that he would be appalled or at least worried, but he glanced down, shrugged and said oh yes that plant does that. It’s fine. And it was. We went on to float down a clear river on small inner tubes, drifting past delicate orchids and gigantic palms, banyans and vines thick as a strong woman’s arm. It’s a memory I hold tucked in a delicate place where I recall the white butterflies that flew up into the deep shiny green of wild jungle.

Like writing the true thing, like becoming a cancer patient, like entering a jungle, the best places for creating something new, for opening consciousness, for exploring what is not known, offer up their secrets with a choice: fear it or become curious. Maybe I should say the truer way is fear it AND become curious. That’s been my reality. 

As my writers’ group joked about taking the jungle way instead of the superhighway as writers, we likened it to using a machete to make the way ahead instead of putting the car on cruise control. It takes effort, but an effort born of deep desire. It’s soul desire. And it doesn’t take effort if it is seen not so much as something to be conquered, like writers’ block or like cancer—and rather something that is to be experienced while fully awake and aware, staying curious to what words will fall on the page or what intricate ways the heart can open to love when cancer calls us to look at our mortality. 

I don’t have a cancer that comes with a dire outcome. My surgeon calls it a “nuisance” cancer. It creates a lot of trouble but she can fix it. It’s noninvasive. 98% cure rate. And yet, and yet, I am in this new club—cancer survivor. 

One of those graces is that it is so clear– I want to get off the superhighway of living my life in the familiar conditioned ways and head into the jungle.

I once forayed into the jungle in Ecuador after taking a narrow canoe down the Napo River. We disembarked on a muddy bank and then walked a mile through the thick network of flora, walking on wooden bridges over dark black water. At the mile’s end we got in even smaller  wooden rickety canoes, just enough for four, and edged across a lake full of small alligators and piranhas. (but not to worry, they only feed after 4:00 in the afternoon.) I would walk trails that left the track of the python and past holes of spiders that were bigger than my outstretched hand. I would climb a kapok tree above the overstory of the trees and spy on brilliantly colored birds and rusty colored howler monkeys. I would walk to the dinner hut as white-faced monkeys swung by me through the vines. The evenings were so full of shrieks, croaks, groans, and calls that it made me laugh at the cacophony yet keeping me from sleep. But the thing I truly feared most, the onslaught of biting weird insects—never happened. The water was so acidic that it didn’t allow breeding of bugs!  

I have things I fear about putting my writing out there in the world and I have things to fear about cancer, but my actual times in the jungle have also taught me that the wondrous nature of words, of life, of being curious quiets the anxious instinctual animal that lies nestled below my breastbone. It transforms even those things that are challenging or painful or scary into yet something I can hold in the palm of my hind, gaze at with love and come to know. 

Time to enter the Jungle. Don’t tell anyone, but the secret name of my writers’ group is now The Machete Gang. I need to sharpen my machete, take plenty of water, and start swinging, making this new path.

Steve and I heading out to explore the jungle from Sacha Lodge, Ecuador.

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