Blog

Learning How to Climb a Different Mountain

I’ve been a visitor to Denali National Park since 1975 and each time I approach the entrance, I feel a strange elation–for I’ve learned from experience, anything can happen here. This vast wildness fuels the wild naturalness in me. I both relax into the letting go of all my roles in life as I pass the final checkpoint at Savage River and then tense with the excitement what may happen here where I’m not in control–where beauty may overwhelm me or wildlife thrill me or an awakening may come here just being close to Denali itself.

Once I literally bumped into a moose as I hiked through a thick spruce forest during the rutting season. My partner was calling for the bull, but instead we bumped into one of his harem, eyes red, hormones flowing. I was so close I looked up into her nostrils that were flaring, ears laid back and eyes wide open. She didn’t move, but she huffed, her breath hitting my face. I didn’t move either. I stared into her fear and confusion and she into mine. Then I backed away, saying soothing words, “There, there, momma, so sorry, so sorry,” and she granted me the mercy of standing still while I backed away. She could have stomped me down, but instead we were wild and close.

I once saw caribou in the rain on the Toklat River so near I felt I could be part of the migration. I still remember that bend in the wide braided river where they were moving to an ancient rhythm that I couldn’t sense. But I felt their purpose and a kind of wisdom old and slow. Their eyes shifted to take me in as I sat and sketched them. A pause. And then a continued slow, undeterred walk to the inner siren that moved them one and all down that gray slate river, leaving me behind and just a little desolate.

And once I saw the rare jaeger, hovering about the muted green tundra. The bus driver stopped and jumped up out of excitement to point it out to the six of us on the nearly vacant bus. It was raining hard, yet just then, in that very moment, the clouds parted and a shaft of sun spotlighted the rare and beautiful bird as it searched for sustenance, glistening and sparkling in the raining sun; and for a few moments I did not know I was a soggy tired body in a bus. I was the rain and the sun and the ferocious intent of that bird.

And once I was making noise as I walked up Tattler Creek, the creek making almost as much noise gurgling and chuckling and most likely gossiping as was its namesake, when a golden grizzly broke out of the alders and brush up above me. She had heard me and chose to give me my leave. How humbling when she was the queen of this place. With one swat, she could have barreled over me, impatient with the intrusion. But she showed me compromise. Her body moved effortlessly up the steep side of the canyon, body golden and flowing, her head and legs a dark brown. I began to breathe again, felt my aliveness.

And this was the place I first climbed a real Alaskan mountain. I was helping out with a sheep survey with a biologist friend of mine. We were on our way up to count Dall sheep on Igloo Mountain. It was thus the first time I also learned about how to weave my way through alders, which always seem to be at the base of the mountain. If you fight them, they will fight you back. But if you go slowly and feel the branches and where they give, you can almost feel elegant in the process. The slope suddenly steepened after breaking through the alders and I couldn’t stand up anymore. With my hands clutching for a hold and my feet searching for purchase, each step was an effort. Lungs burning and calves aching, I was taking big steps to keep up, but then my partner whispered, “Small steps, small steps.” I adjusted. I felt the rightness of this rhythm. Small steps changed my breathing, and I felt the needed surrender to the terrain. We climbed and traversed until near the top, the slope eased and we were in the wonder of alpine flowers–dryas octopetala, moss campion, pink pincushion, dwarf harebells–all clinging to a scratch of tundra. It was here at the very top that the Dall rams abide. We could follow their narrow trail, marked with tufts of white hollow hair and little balls of scat. At one point, I made the mistake of looking down. Only six inches of trail kept me from plunging a couple thousand feet down a rocky slope. I wavered. But I was already on the trail. My only choice was to do as I had done. To focus on what was right in front of me and take another step. We found those Dall rams, crawling on our bellies, slowly, taking our time. The thrill of seeing those regal animals on that mountain top altered my soul.

This altering of soul I remember– climbing that mountain and the wildness of that park– as I now live in wild times, when anything could happen. And yet I’m not relaxed and there is not the same anticipation as I had visiting Denali. What I’m learning now is how to climb the mountain of uncertainty that comes with having my dear soul sister so ill with metastatic cancer. And if not insult enough, during a pandemic. It’s unimaginable not to be able to be by her side, not able to give her a hug or hold her hand. And after 9 weeks of chemo-induced vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, brain fog, and insomnia, it wasn’t worth it. It didn’t work. It didn’t work. On now to the experimental treatment. The journey stretches out ahead dark and unknowable. A narrow trail with lots of exposure. How am I to be with her? It’s like climbing a mountain– through thick alders, struggling up a steep slope, finding it hard to breathe, wavering with gut-wrenching fear. So these old old lessons arise as I hold the memory of that first ascent of Igloo Mountain. Old wisdom is what I need now. Maybe that is why it comes back to me–learning how to climb this unnerving mountain has me staggering. The mountain says, “Move with the same elegance through obstacles, sensing the way through.” I know on one hand this wisdom holds true. It’s exactly what I need to do. But I’ve barely broken through the alders of this mountain. Really, I want to just scream, throw things and demand a better explanation from whoever God is in this.

I got to see her last night–on her back deck, both of us with masks on, 10 feet apart. She wearing her blue cap to keep her bare head warm and me in my turban, trying to imagine no hair. She’s thinner. She’s reflective, grateful and gracious as always–still pays great attention to detail, still loves to talk about her grandchildren, still brightens with creativity. Others have gathered too to wish her well, make prayer flags, dance in her labyrinth while she watches and we all howled. We are her wolfpack. It’s good, I tell myself. This is enough. This moment. This laughter. This joy. This deep connection. But in my car on the way home, I feel a little desolate.

I’ve had some nausea since I first learned about it 10 weeks ago. It does make me sick. I’ve learned to say those same soothing words to myself as I said to the moose when I’m torn open, “There, there, I know, so sorry, so sorry.” I’ve backed away from the brute force of my friend’s reality at times, but I’ve never been in denial. In fact, I am what they say, “preparing myself.” Oh yes, there are “flowers” of defiant, rugged beauty along the way, delicate and hardy as those alpine flowers. I’ve seen love in the tenderest of ways that tip me back to balance and hope. The new treatment seems to be helping. I’ve seen some miracles. But I’m just starting up that steep slope, breathing hard, aching, reciting my mantra, “small steps, small steps.” Finding my way to the top.

View near the top of Igloo Mountain, looking across to Cathedral Mountain in Denali National Park 9/19

Zuihitsu: A Perfect Form for the Times

I was introduced to a new writing form today on a forum I follow called 49 Writers. ( Alaska is the 49th state to join the Union.) They’ve devoted a post a day to bridge the gaps in meeting with fellow writers during the pandemic restrictions. Today’s post was from John Morgan of Fairbanks who defines a zuihitsu as ” a Japanese form involving loosely related prose sections, often numbered. Calling on free association, it makes use of diary material, lyrical fragments, and brief essays. The word zuihitsu means “follow the brushstroke.”” I’m intrigued to give it a try.

Feels Like Spring: May 3, 2020

  1. The buds on the birch tree by the deck have hesitantly emerged. After all, it was still 33 degrees last night. But those 55 degree days of sun are alluring. Local wisdom says when those buds are as big as a squirrel’s ear, we can plant. I’m watching for squirrels.
  2. I’m planning a party for a friend who is on cancer treatment. She’s been on strict quarantine of course. Yet with precautions, she and her husband agreed that some social interaction would be healing. But I never had to take into a consideration that I could kill someone if I had a party. We are planning the distance apart we can take on the deck and everyone is to BYOM–bring your own mask. Sanitizers will be at the base of the stairs to the deck. No food. Provide your own drink and glass. If you bring a gift, wipe it down with chlorox wipes or just don’t bring one. Whew. Sounding less like a party. Counting on Love to carry us through.
  3. My three year old granddaughter told me yesterday that “My shadow very loves me.” I said, “Oh how do you know?” She explained,”Because when I’m swinging or running or on my scooter, it always comes with me.” Very love.
  4. Took a deep breath and tried going to Costco for the first time since the shutdown. The variety of masks in colors, styles and sizes alone is engaging. But when I got hemmed in by carts near the cheese aisle, I had some momentary panic. I don’t want to think of my fellow human beings as toxic to me–but I did.
  5. If not for the pandemic, I would be at a campground in Capitol Reefs National Park right now. But the Park is closed, my reservation money has been sent back and we couldn’t drive our camper through Canada anyway with the borders closed. I haven’t been home in April for a long time. So I’ve planted seeds, seeds and more seeds. My dining room table is now the greenhouse. There is that moment of looking a seed that is almost microscopic and trying to believe that will become a green thriving plant. Yet they are pushing up through the black soil and leaning with all their might toward the light of the window. It’s hard to believe a virus so so much smaller than that seed can kill. Yet I see the statistics every night on the late news. I’m glad it’s the season of long days here where I rarely see the dark anymore. I’m leaning into light too.
  6. A notice went out from the local church that if the church buildings open up again for worship, there can only be 20 people inside. And no communion. No greeting handshake, no sharing of the peace. And no singing. “A singer can spray up to 27 feet,” the message advises. I notice I’m humming hymns much of the time these days as I putter in the yard. No conscious intent to do so, they just arise. My latest is What Wondrous Love is This O My Soul.
  7. My mother is still in isolation at the rehab facility after her fall and resulting hip fracture. It’s 3500 miles away from me. Her dementia keeps her isolated as well from understanding where she is, why she is there and why the heck we don’t get her out of there and take her home. The adjoining facility for those in assisted living has an outbreak of Covid19. I wait for daily updates and send her emails through the social worker.
  8. One day at a time has taken new meaning. I wake up, sense my body and with a sigh of relief say to myself, “I’m not sick.”
  9. I didn’t want to write about the virus today.
  10. ” It is I who must begin. Once I begin, once I try– here and now, right where I am, not excusing myself by saying things would be easier elsewhere, without grand speeches and ostentatious gestures, but all the more persistently–to live in harmony with the “voice of Being,” as I understand it within myself–as as soon as I begin that, I suddenly discover, to my surprise, that I am neither the only one, nor the first, nor the most important one to have set out upon this road. Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely on whether or not I am lost.” A poem by Vaclav Havel.

Breaking Open at Break Up

It was magic. In the morning my labyrinth was covered in snow. In the afternoon it had appeared. It was the first day that felt like warmth in the air again, a warmth that stopped me, and willed me to stop and turn around in all directions to see from whence it had come. It was as if someone had broken into winter and with great stealth and in rich stillness, the earth reappeared. The solid ground was still there under the months of heavy snow cover. The sodden leaves strewn across the labyrinth spoke of the distant fall. The broken branches littering its circuits bore testimony of winter storms. Yet now the spiraling paths in the labyrinth were appearing again, the paths unchanged as I expected, yet NEW.

I hear anew each night the toll that the COVID19 virus is taking on the world. More deaths, more hospitalizations, more cases, more frustration, more anger to open up business again (busy-ness) again, more doubt, more grief. And each night I hear of more kindnesses; food deliveries, drive-by parties, donations of masks, medical personnel volunteering to return to work, artwork on sidewalks, donated online sessions of music and spiritual and social healing. A willingness to close down, to shelter in, to not fly, to stay 6 feet apart to save lives. All so new to a ways of life now, all part of what is here now.

The ground is soggy with the melt and the snow that still clings outside the edges of the labyrinth is mushy and soft, just like my heart these days. I pull on my breakup boots, feeling the ritual of that act that marks spring in Alaska. Stepping into the labyrinth, new questions arise as I walk the loopy spirals to the center. Do I risk getting the virus by staying in contact with my children and grandchildren? Or do I savor this time with them when they are out of school and wanting to be with me, even though it could possibly be the “death of me”? Am I afraid of death? Or afraid of the idea of it? Better safe than sorry? Or take care with good precautions and not let my life be run by fear? Is this a time to face the challenge of taking better care of self than of others? Yet isn’t this a time for love as its never been before in the world? Won’t I be protected and held? Aren’t I healthy enough to withstand the virus if it does come?

Amid the churning, churning, churning of these questions in my mind, there is something else here. A rising sense of being quiet comes as I walk and turn and wind to the center of this sacred path. It takes its time, it slowly reveals itself. It is a quiet that is greater than the questions or the fear or the doubt or confusion. It’s not the satisfaction of getting clear answers. It is simply stillness again.. as another way of being. The psalmist said it simply as “Be still and know that I am God.” As psalmist, I write,

You ask me to be still, O Beloved as the world weeps.

You ask me to trust when I cannot know if the virus will strike me down.

You ask me to be and not to do.

To stay home, go within, shelter myself, and simply be still.

That simple.

Be still.

I listen as you wish me spring,

as you bring me spring again.

It’s Time to Howl

I met a woman from Mill Valley, California last night online as part of a course I’m taking called Live the Sacred Blessings of the Women Mystics and Goddesses. After the teaching portion of the class, we were put into breakout rooms on Zoom. (seems to be a big part of my life now) As we were ending the session, she mentioned that she needed to go because at 8:00 it was time to go outside her door and howl. Taken aback, I said, “Did you say howl?” ‘

“Yes,” she said. “The whole valley does it at 8:00. It just seems the time in our world to howl. Howl for anger, frustration, joy, connection, grief, or whatever comes up. We just go out and howl.”

I’ve been wanting to write something about this time in the life of the world right now as the pandemic has rearranged our routines, our assumptions, our awareness of mortality. But it seems so MUCH is being written and said. Yet this is what I want to put out into the world and put into my life. I just want to HOWL right now. I want to howl that people are dying alone; I want to howl that my fellow sojourners on this planet are without work. I want to howl that my best friend has metastatic cancer and the chemo isn’t working but I can’t sit by her bedside; I want to howl that my mom broke her hip and is confused with dementia and I can’t fly to be with her or enter the locked down rehab facility; I want to howl that my sister has pneumonia at a time this is more than dangerous for her to leave home; I want to howl that I have to check myself all the time when I see another person first as a possible carrier of a disease instead of a human being; I want to howl when I can’t see my grandkids because their mom works in a medical clinic. I want to howl at all that we just don’t know yet about this virus or how we should adequately respond.

And then…. I want to howl at the full knowing of how precious my family and friends are to me especially NOW when I can’t hug them and go to them. I want to howl at the beauty of the moon and all it teaches about light the darkness. I want to howl at the great space that has opened in my heart as I have this time to meditate and inquire and write and just be. I want to howl at the pussy willows just beginning to bud and the way my labyrinth is slowly appearing in my yard as the snow melts. I want to howl that I never felt so close to the chickadees in my bird feeder and how they too have never flown so close to me and landed by my chair. I want to howl at the mountains draped in white and the way Eagle River flows clear in the spring as the ice hangs on a foot thick on the banks.

I want to howl at being a human being that can live a life so rich and full of potential and that a tiny tiny virus can kill me. Tonight and every night at 8:00, I’m going to. I am going to howl in my valley.

I listen to see if you will howl too. Join the wolf pack.

The Words I Would Miss

Sometimes when I’m reading or listening to conversation I will hear a word that turns up the corners of my mouth. A little thing called joy arises. And I say that word again and again, feeling it in my mouth, noticing how the air moves or how my lips accommodate to pronounce it. More than pronouncing though, it feels like announcing, “Here is a word that I never knew I loved until I heard it.” There is no rhyme to why I like a word in this intimate way; it isn’t the meaning. It isn’t the length. Or certain sounds that letters make. It is as if I’ve seen the soul of that word and why it absolutely must be in language. Who said it first? What compelled that exact word into existence? Why do I hear it and feel it resonate in my heart? I love the mystery of it. Below are a few of the many that I hold cupped in my hands like a cherished gift. And say when I move closer to who I AM.

Suffice. Impeccable. Nuanced. Similitude. Preposterous. Incandescence. Segue. Luminosity. Plethora. Flourish. Voluptuous. Labyrinthine. Bereft. Mythos. Solace. Shimmer. Quintessential. Speculate.

Do you love words? Do you have those you know in this way? I’d love to hear them. Please share below in the message box.

COV19, Prairie Dogs and the Existential Questions

I recently returned from my semiannual retreat in Connecticut that focused on none other than The Point of Existence. Yes, it asked those big questions of  “Who am I?” “What am I ? if I’m not the conditioned familiar self of my history and culture. I began this work of knowing who I AM through the Diamond Approach seven years ago (and started even as a teenager scribbling in my diary.) But this retreat brought home to me a sure conviction. I need to slow down in all aspects of my life to self-realize—in the way I get up from a chair, in the speed of my speech, in the incessant planning in my mind, what I and when I buy anything, how I read a book, the way I cook food, the style of my writing, the rate of movement in my exercise. It is THE pivotal way to invite presence and awareness into my life—to nothing less than to transform.

And during this same retreat, I became aware of the burgeoning fear around COV19. One of my colleagues had flown in from Milan and had to be quarantined at the retreat center. I flew home wondering if I would become a carrier and went into two weeks of quarantine. Despite the drastic difficulty the virus is causing in the world and in my own life, it has also been an ally in my becoming. I had no choice but to slow down my life. I’ve come to our wilderness cabin where there is nothing I have to do and the Internet connection isn’t easy. Watching the mountain turn colors at sunrise and sunset takes some hours. Watching snow fall is an exercise in considering my place in the universe—a single snowflake, part of the whole. Planning the day by simply taking the next step. 

Yesterday I listened to Terry Tempest Williams talk about her work as a naturalist doing research on prairie dogs, a species now endangered by environmental policies. During her days of watching the prairie dogs from sun up to sundown, she observed a prairie dog ritual; at sunrise, the prairie dog community comes out of their burrows, turn to the east, press their forepaws together as if in prayer, and stand absolutely still for 30 minutes. Then they return to the burrows. At sunset, they come out, press their forepaws together, and face west for 30 minutes. Then return to their burrows. 

This image is so alive in me today. I can envision it as if I am there. To be still, turned to the light, in prayer as daily practice. And then, returning to just being a prairie dog, doing what is natural. 

Returning to my True Nature, what is really “natural” for me has been so obscured by wanting to be loved rather than loving myself, by being so busy and multitasking rather than just being, by being desperate to change myself rather than allowing myself to be changed— is my deepest desire. I couldn’t have imagined that the COV19 virus and prairie dogs would be my friends on that path. But that is what intrigues me about this journey—it’s never how I thought it would be and yet it is MORE.  

Williams remarked at the end of her talk that the greatest edge is becoming fully who you are—and from that place, to be of use. I translate that as, instead of knowing who I AM by what I do, I know myself as I AM and then follow what compels me.

What is compelling me now is writing and reading poetry; it’s the only thing that makes sense to me in these days, most days, always. The following addresses the fears of our world in the wake of the virus. This poem was written in 1997 when the fear of what would happen to all the computers when the world began marking time as the year 2000. Remember that fear? 

Jasmine

Almost the 21st century,

How quickly the thought will 

grow dated, 

quaint.

Our hopes, our futures, 

will pass like the hopes and futures

of others.

And all our anxieties and terrors,

nights of sleeplessness,

griefs,

will appear truly as they are—

Stumbling, delirious bees in

the tea scent of jasmine. 

Jane Hirschfield from The Lives of the Heart” collection

In the quiet..

Sharing a poem that came this morning when snow has fallen and hushed the earth. Wishing you quiet and the deep hope that underlies this time of uncertainty.

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen the fountain springing out of the rock wal
land you drinking there.
And I too before your eyes 
found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water. 
The woman of that place, shading her eyes,
frowned as she watched-but not because
she grudged the water, 
only because she was waiting
to see we drank our fill and were
refreshed. Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and gray stones, it is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us, up and out through the rock.
   ~ Denise Levertov  

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust

It’s Ash Wednesday today in the Christian tradition and marks the beginning of the Lenten season. For several years, this was the Wednesday that I would mix olive oil with burnt palms, dip my thumb into the mixture and make the sooty sign of the cross on the foreheads of my parishioners as they knelt before me, reciting the words to each of them, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But the last year that I did this, I said the words, “Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.” For me, this more adequately summarized how we as human beings have come into being–and where we shall return. We are not just of this earth; we are of the cosmos.

On this Ash Wednesday, I was with my 95 year old mother, sitting at the table in a skilled nursing facility with 3 other women near 90, telling stories of their lives. Although recent memory is foggy for them, they could easily bring up those from childhood– churning butter, washing clothes in a wringer washer, eating only beans and corn during the Depression, the kind words of their mother, the pranks played by a brother or the Christmas Eves when Santa would come down the stairs with presents. They had lives full of hardship and pain, loss of sisters to scarlet fever, loss of a son in a car accident, the loss of three brothers in the war. As I sat with them and with the other 20 or so women who slept in chairs and pushed walkers around the room, I could see that it could look depressing with one set of eyes. But with another set, I could see how they were still shining even as their lives are waning.

Starlight yet.

We are such “perishable miracles” as Maria Popova says. I follow a her blog called Brain Pickings. This week (February 23, 2020) she explored the marvel of our existence by saying, “the central animating force of our species, the wellspring of our joy and curiosity, the restlessness that gave us Whitman and Wheeler, Keats and Curie, is the very fathoming of this fathomless universe — an impulse itself a marvel in light of our own improbability(my emphasis). Somehow, we went from bacteria to Bach; somehow, we learned to make fire and music and mathematics. And here we are now, walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath an overstory of one hundred trillion synapsese.”

I often ponder that we know a lot more about our universe than ever before; we can peer into space back billions of years. We’ve identified millions of stars, planets, nebulas, solar systems, black holes. And yet so far, there isn’t a blue and green planet where life as we know it exists. I have heard it said by cosmologist Brian Swimme that if Earth was tilted just a few degrees differently, life on Earth would not exist. I sense more and more how much I don’t get it—I and every other being is simply a cosmic miracle.

The physicist and mathematician, Brian Greene writes, (from the same blog by Popova), “Even so, to see our moment in context is to realize that our existence is astonishing. Rerun the Big Bang but slightly shift this particle’s position or that field’s value, and for virtually any fiddling the new cosmic unfolding will not include you or me or the human species or planet earth or anything else we value deeply.We exist because our specific particulate arrangements won the battle against an astounding assortment of other arrangements all vying to be realized. By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”

And yet we are perishable. Ashes to Ashes. Stardust to Stardust.

Greene goes on to say, “In the fullness of time all that lives will die. For more than three billion years, as species simple and complex found their place in earth’s hierarchy, the scythe of death has cast a persistent shadow over the flowering of life. Diversity spread as life crawled from the oceans, strode on land, and took flight in the skies. But wait long enough and the ledger of birth and death, with entries more numerous than stars in the galaxy, will balance with dispassionate precision. The unfolding of any given life is beyond prediction. The final fate of any given life is a foregone conclusion.”

I no longer see that as a grim statement. Yes, there is yet a part of me that shies away from death–that part of my primal brain whose role it is to survive. And I don’t want to lose friends, let alone my children or grandchildren. I don’t want to lose my mother. Yet it is the truth. We live and we all die. We can blind ourselves not only that we are miracles, but also to this–that we are “perishable.”

Ash Wednesday serves to mark us physically with this remembrance. The black cross on the forehead of the congregation reminds them of the death of Christ, not the resurrection. It links our humanity to the story of God’s in human form. To be human is to die.

My desire is to grow in acceptance of that. To even be content with it. And let it fuel my gratitude, my fire, my creativity, and my utter awe.

Ashes to ashes. Stardust to stardust.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey

Have you noticed that sometimes it’s hard to go back to a book you’ve already read? Some of it is already knowing the plot, already relishing your favorite parts, already surrendered to the ending whether it’s the one you wanted or the one you didn’t. I was surprised that I felt this way about going back to review, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce.I think it was such a tender story that I wanted to keep those virgin feelings, not analyze them post-read. 

But I also see what I missed now that I’m going back through the chapters. The book is loosely organized around three letters. Both this book and it’s companion (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), begin with the letter that Queenie writes to her former co-worker, telling him that she has cancer and there is nothing left to be done. She thanks him for his friendship and assures him she is at peace. But for both of them, there is a part of their story that has no peace. The book recounts all that has been left unsaid and untold in their relationship and all the regrets that still linger. 

This is the substance of most of the book, contained in the form of a second letter to Harold. In this second letter, she writes to make a full confession of how she feels she has wronged him. She has to write as the cancer surgery has taken her tongue and the ability to speak. She is intent in this endeavor as she waits for Harold to arrive on his pilgrimage to her, always wondering if he will make it before she goes.  Assisting her in completing this second letter is the enigmatic French Sister Inconnu, one of the nurses at St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Whenever she wants to give up, Sister Inconnu is there to give her strength and wisdom. The following is a passage from the book as Queenie is entering her last days and has been taken out to sit under the shade of a tree. 

Suddenly Sister Mary inconnu let out a hiccup. She slapped her hand to her mouth but another one followed and another. I realized that what she was doing was laughing. ‘

“What is it?” I asked. Something like that.

  A further  laugh erupted from her with a gigantic splutter. She had to grip her stomach and lift her feet. Rocking this way and that, she pointed upwards. HOO HOO HOO, she went, while still pointing up at the tree. That was all she could manage in the way of communication. “Look at the branches, Look at the leaves. When you really look, you see how fantastic it is. It’s so perfect you have to laugh!” She guffawed. 

Now that she’d said it, I couldn’t see how I hadn’t noticed before. The tree above us was a canopy of bright lime leaves, each one shaped like an eye with perfect crinkle-cut edges. Where the sun caught them they shone luminous, while those in shade hung a deeper green. I took in the solid torso of the trunk, the curls and brindles in the gray bark, the milky covering of moss where the sun could not reach. I gazed at the exuberant bow of the five central branches, like sturdy shoulders, and then I moved my eye to the entanglement twigs and leaves….It was the most marvelous thing, that tree, now that we sat and took notice. It was hilarious.  

We sat, weeping with laughter.  Ha, Ha went the tree, look at those funny ladies. One with a wimple. One in a wheelchair. Look at the beauty of them. 

This particular passage at first puzzled me; I thought the first response to recognizing the beauty of nature is awe, not laughter. In fact, laughing seemed to discount this moment of recognition when we realize we are not separate from creation. But then I began to appreciate this response, if not from the viewpoint that it is hilarious that we think we are! (Especially trees—see my prior post on the Overstory.) Yet also in my experience, that One-ness does take on pure joy and laughter. Particularly when I remember having a gray whale come up beside the small boat I was in so that it’s eye was just below the surface of the water and we stared at each other for a timeless time. Afterwards I laughed and laughed and laughed at the beauty and joy and surprise of it all. It was so natural to laugh, so compelling to laugh, so precise to respond in exactly this way. I think this passage is poignant simply because Queenie is going to die in a day or so. That here at the end of her life, when there are so many choices, she “sees” the beauty that was there–and laughs.

With each vignette of the different hospice patients, with each struggle to survive another day, with each small way the Sisters take to make each day comfortable and enjoyable for the hospice patients, an overall story of love is told, as well as Queenie’s love story. Even the grand story of the pilgrimage and all the attention it draws, fades in the more telling story of how life is lived in the moment, what is noticed, how our souls respond. Queenie comes to see that what she thought was lost in her love of Harold, was always there.

I don’t want to spoil the ending as there is a surprise, or two. All that is contained in the Third Letter that Sister Philomena writes to Harold after Queenie dies. 

It is possible to go on a long and transforming pilgrimage without ever leaving the place you are. 

What Life Brings

I had hoped to do a lot of writing on my second week in Mexico, but strangely my computer refused to turn on, even though it was fully charged. The humidity? The salt air? Divine intervention? Writing in my journal had to suffice ( by the way, I love that word and someday I’m going to write a whole blog on words I love). I diagnosed my computer as homesickness and miraculously, it seemed to be true. When I got home, it worked perfectly the next morning and henceforth.

But the other unexpected turn of events actually began when we were still in Mexico. My close friend of 35 years began to get stomach symptoms. We weren’t too worried; it was Mexico and probably there was some bacteria here that didn’t agree with her. A Mexico Bug was our diagnosis. Sadly my diagnosis this time was woefully wrong. When she went to the doctor the morning after we returned, she was sent to the ER, had a CT scan and called me that night. Metastatic ovarian cancer. Exploratory surgery scheduled three days later. Chemo started two days after that. All this was a 9 days ago now. I’ve spent most of that time with her either at the hospital or her home, taking steps one at a time on a path where you can’t see around the next corner. The rest of the time I’ve been texting, calling and emailing the web of friends who love her. That has been my writing practice this past week, but the content is much the same each time. The news. Acknowledging the shock. Encouraging them that it sounds bad but there’s a good prognosis–80% remission, even a 5% chance of cure. Not a death sentence anymore but a chronic illness that can be managed with quality of life.

When I was 9, I was told my two year old brother was going to die from a rare form of muscle cancer. My response then was to shout out, ‘NO!” and run away. When I was 19, the same news, only this time my 15 year old sister and bone cancer. I crumbled. The same news at 34 when my dad was was diagnosed with lung cancer. I froze and felt helpless. Another sister with breast cancer and brother with kidney cancer but less serious prognosis. So cancer and I are no strangers.

I’ve been watching myself this time; shock yes. Numb for a while. Very tired. But I’m not falling apart. I’m not running away. If anything, this past week has opened me up to such love and gratitude. These new eyes are not just for my friend, but it’s as if I have new eyes for everyone, as if I can see their beauty so clearly– or as Thomas Merton once put it, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I can only attribute this change to the years of being with what life brings. And to some of the spiritual work I’ve engaged in with a whole heart. My current path is the Diamond Approach and a recent teaching by Rosanne Annoni on acceptance has seeped into my soul and given me some of this new vision. In it, she acknowledges that from the ordinary perspective, acceptance feels like the opposite of rejection. So if I’m going to accept my friend’s diagnosis, it must mean I can’t reject it and I have to bring it closer. I assume it’s something I need to do. Or acceptance means that passive acquiescence of “Oh well, that’s how things are; I just need to accept it.” Again, something I do. Yet true acceptance isn’t what I do. It’s an openness, a willingness to simply be with what is without judgment: “Can I gently, kindly be with the immediacy of my experience without saying “yes” or “no” to it?” We can’t make ourselves accept or decide to accept. “It’s a perspective of just being with what is unfolding.”

She also acknowledges that “What’s hard is how do I accept reality when reality sucks? This quality of acceptance is not a condoning, but a finding that inner sense of tranquility when we face a reality that is distortion of Being. We can respond, but not react.” All that is hard for the ordinary mind to get around. Yet somehow without me doing anything, I’ve absorbed a sense of it. Just being with this without reacting.

Reality of this cancer in my friend sucks. I’m just being with that. But it’s not all of Reality. I want to write more about this in my next post when I review a book that is a companion to the book I reviewed on The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This book is The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey which recounts what happened on the other end of Harold’s pilgrimage as she awaits his arrival in a hospice hospital, dying of cancer. Stay tuned. It’s also worth a read.

It’s good to get back to writing on my blog. And in these cold dry winter days in Alaska, I don’t have to worry that my computer will refuse to turn on due to humidity or the salt air!