Taming Cerberus: Third of a Three-part Exploration of Jung, Expressive Arts Therapy and Breast Cancer Recovery

Taming Cerberus

Cerberus guards the gates of hell to keep souls from escaping. In this final drawing, I’m expressing the healing that has happened over almost four years since diagnosis. I’ve gotten my clothes back on, and I’m moving forward. The wind is in my face, and that’s okay. Cerberus is on a perhaps tenuous leash (that collar doesn’t look like it would withstand much resistance), but we’ve got an understanding between us. He could as soon chew me up as walk with me, but for now, we’re okay together. Death will come. That’s inevitable, but I am no longer trapped in hell, and I’m fully alive today.

I did not plan it to be so, but each drawing in this series shows a broadening perspective, from a focus on a single cancerous breast to a self with only half a body, to this drawing:  a whole body. I have also added my favorite ring and boots. I’m feeling whole again.

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Shedding Aphrodite: more Jungian exploration of the breast cancer experience

One of the things I needed to express after breast cancer was the losses. However, I had a lot of other feelings to attend to: tremendous anxiety for the first three and a little years about possibility of recurrence; confusion about next steps in my life; gratitude for survival and a second chance.

Sometimes the complexity of feelings – all the various layers – can short-circuit the experience of feeling each one fully. If I’m anxious, confused, grateful and grieving, what does that look like? It might look like a lot of Facebook scrolling because I don’t know what to do with it.

So the assignment I had in my Theories of Expressive Therapies class was something I continued. In A Gripping Conversation with Skeleton Woman, I was able to express and release horror. I felt it leave me. The swirling vortex of horror drained out of me and into the drawing. I decided to see if the same were possible with another difficult emotion: grief.

The grief had a body-based center. It was the grief that menopause had come so quickly – within months – of my diagnosis. So not only did I lose my breasts and gain weird, numb “foobs” (fake boobs) in their place, but I also experienced a very sudden aging. I ultimately gained 40 pounds; my hair texture changed to a dry, fuzzy thing; I had no skin oils, and all my feminine “juiciness” dried up. My brain didn’t function as well (some of which was attributable to the medical trauma, I believe). My sleep was disrupted. I had hot flashes at all times of day and night. My sex drive was nearly non-existent.

Shedding Aprhodite was an expressive pencil and chalk pastel drawing.  I tried to draw a realistic woman whose body was something like mine. Aphrodite is represented by the colors being whisked away – brown hair, peach flesh. The scarf of youth – and breast cancer – are being blown off. In their place is grayness. It’s in the future I look into, and it is invading my body. Dry, cracked earth is overtaking my beauty. My skin, my breasts, my belly are no longer soft flesh but hardened ground.

My expression is one of disgust. This drawing captures no nuance. It’s all disgust and resistance.

Shedding Aphrodite final

After the drawing, I stepped back. This drawing spent weeks on my easel, and I saw it whenever I sat down to work in my office. I realized about halfway through the process of creation that I have other emotions about my body. I see this drawing and think, “It’s not really so bad any more.” However, I realize that it was only in giving myself a chance to focus on the losses for a time, to give it as full an expression as I could, that I was free to gain perspective. A lot has shifted, even in the past couple of months in terms of my physical experience of menopause. Was it in part because I took some time to give voice to the grief, and so I could move beyond it?

A Gripping Conversation with Skeleton Woman: Jung, archetype, and breast cancer

It has been over three years since diagnosis and mastectomies. It has been almost three years since I completed reconstruction.

I expected that the ripples of trauma and the changes I experienced emotionally, physically, and mentally after the blow of a cancer diagnosis and surgeries would have faded. Instead, I’ve noticed some of them harden, like lumps of fibrous tissue. Much of my life is good, even fantastic, but I wonder how to massage out the toxins that remain from that major life event.

I’ve been reading a lot of Jung and working with archetypes and art as ways of working with the continuing healing from breast cancer. Where are the nodules of pain and dis-ease that remain? How do I expel or transform them?

There is a story that Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in Women Who Run with the Wolves about Skeleton Woman. She talks about how other societies have worked with the reality that death is a partner to life. If we love, we will experience loss. If we live, we will die. The pairing of the two is part of what makes us aware of the sweetness of life. If we don’t have that awareness, death and loss can catch us off-guard. We can wonder, “Why me?” when we could, instead, be aware that it is all of us.

In the image below, entitled, “A Gripping Conversation with Skeleton Woman” captures the feeling of being fondled by death, the inability to recoil without more harm, and provides a meditation for meeting death where femininity, youth, and beauty converge.A Gripping Conversation with Skeleton Woman FINAL

The ripples of spontaneous mantra

I don’t formally practice mantra, but I have found that it sometimes arises spontaneously and has a powerful, crystalline “truthiness” to it. A word or a few can infuse my perspective with insight, humor or tenderness that helps shift my awareness and, ultimately, my actions.

My first spontaneous mantra came in the form of an inquiry in 1977. I was eight years old, lying on my bed an early summer day. I had pink curtains in my room and white bedroom furniture – a full matching set – and all my stuffed animals and favorite dolls around me on my bed. (We’d had a couple years of material plenty when my mom dated her then boyfriend, Oscar, and these things surrounding me were the remainders of that relationships.) I held a new toy and felt such longing for it, such love and enjoyment. And then my mind wandered to the future, and I suddenly realized that some day I would not have that toy anymore, and in fact I would probably forget that toy altogether (as I actually have). I felt sadness in that moment, and I wondered, “What lasts?”

“What lasts?” has continued to reverberate through my life. I discovered M. Scott Peck’s writing in The Road Less Traveled, and through that reading felt like “love” was a worthy line of my ongoing inquiry. If I were going to invest my life energy in something, it seemed that “love” might just be that thing that lasts. Thirty years later, I have no regrets regarding what has become a deepening and healing inquiry.

In recent years, as I’ve pursued healing for compulsive, addictive behaviors and for patterns  in my life that are generally destructive to myself and others, I’ve found that another mantra has bubbled up, and I continue to find applications for it. “Just don’t make it worse,” arises over and over again.

It comes up around emotions and food a lot. I have uncomfortable emotions arise, emotions I never got skillful at holding or expressing in childhood, like fear, anger, longing, disappointment, resentment, even joy and hope. Generally speaking, all emotions! And I’ve worked for a long time (decades) to uncover what the feelings are and to know what to do with them. A beginning, after identifying that they exist, is to say to myself, “Just don’t make it worse, Lora.”

Am I angry? Don’t make it worse by burying it, denying it, being aggressive toward self or others. Just let it be what it is.

Is my body uncomfortable? Don’t make it worse by adding judgment (Is it cancer??? Am I hopelessly flawed?), or by tightening around it. Mind-body exercise is a great place to explore this phenomenon and the mantra. I find this arising in pigeon pose in yoga quite a bit: I and my students tighten our jaws and shoulders in response to the deep stretch in the hip. I’ve gotten laughs from my students when I mention this mantra because we all get such a deep and body-felt awareness of how ridiculous that added tension in the jaw, face and shoulders is to the discomfort we’re communally exploring in the hip.

Is there tension in a relationship or work? Don’t make it worse by avoiding the problem, adding projection or shame to it.

Am I happy about something? Don’t make it worse by rejecting the happiness; yes, the happiness will fade or shift, but it’s okay to feel it an enjoy it while it’s here.

The most recent mantra that arose from me is one that I hear in Tara Brach’s voice. Tara Brach is a meditation teacher who wrote Radical Acceptance, and she has audio recordings of meditations based on that material.

I was at the final retreat for my Engaged Mindfulness teacher training. I’d had a few days’ worth of meditation at one point, and I realized I had a lot of aggression arising. The story doesn’t matter, but the waves of aggression arose, and I decided to contemplate those waves and to meet them with Tara’s voice in my head that simply said, “Darling,”  in response.

The inquiry went something like this:

I feel a desire to cause harm to another. Oh, Darling. Softening around that very human impulse.

I have felt that desire all my life, but directed it inward into self-harm. Darling. A loving mother’s stroking of my brow for all the suffering I experienced at my own hand and from the hand of those who did not have the skills to refrain from violence.

Shame, arising from these impulses. Darling. Shame is very painful, feeling it but not hardening against it.

Feeling the tender heart beneath the desire to lash out or suppress my longings for love and connection, longings that were met with rejection or even violence by others and myself. Darling. Your tender heart lies beneath it all. 

Feeling deeply the trust that beneath the aggressive impulse in others lies the tender heart that has been wounded. Yes, Darling. Feeling the interconnection with others and our shared humanity.

I wept, and I found that in that simple word lay the balm for my wounds, the framework for how to hold my own experience, and even a healing for the relationship with my mother and my understanding of the generations of the deeply wounded women who went before me. None of us had mothers who could hold us in the way we needed to be held, either literally (violence being the norm in the family) or on a spiritual/emotional level.

When I find these words or questions or brief statements that speak so deeply to the nature of what ails me, inspires me, comforts me (sometimes I don’t even know what it is, but only that the statement has a resonance to it), I work with it: put it on paper to see in the course of the day; take it to the meditation cushion for the contemplation portion of my practice time; take it to the matt in yoga or stomp it out in hikes in the woods; share it with friends or students and enjoy the laugh of recognition. Like pebbles dropped in the water, the impact of these words fans out.

 

 

Wrestling with Hope

I’ll be 50 years old this year. By even the best calculations, I’m closer to death than I am to life. As a cancer survivor, I’ve had my brush with the possibility of a relatively young death. (Although, as a friend once said to me in my 30s, when I expressed the fear of dying young, “Isn’t it a little late for that?”) As the survivor of intense and long-standing abuse and neglect as a child, my odds of surviving long are significantly lower than the average person’s. So recently, as I’ve considered the possibility of returning to graduate school, I’ve had to actively work with the stuff of my life and how I will hold this information in juxtaposition to the opportunities before me. How do I hope? Here are a few ways I’ve worked with this topic, and why I chose to say yes to graduate school at this point in my life.

  1. Expanding my horizon. I’m not sure who said it, but someone has suggested that when we become overwhelmed, it helps to expand our horizons. My background and fears (i.e., chronic childhood abuse and neglect, fear of dying from cancer) are aspects of my experience. When I step back from them, however, and take in more of the picture, they become far less portentous and individual aspects of many, many aspects of my life. Many of those other aspects of my life are good, lovely, hopeful and worthy. I gain perspective on the fears and notice, too, that they’re part of shared human experience. All of this gives me peace, despite the occasional dips into distress or anxiety.
  2. Bringing my full self into the room. I lived a very divided life before breast cancer. I hid a lot of my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from myself and those who loved me. Significant childhood abuse frequently leaves children subjected to it  with a sense of shame and deep pain. They internalize the rejection of their parents and carry that breach in family connection with them throughout their lives. This can result in addiction and self-sabotaging behavior. I was no exception. I’d had an eating disorder, smoked, shopped and generally numbed-out for big chunks of my life. When I got my cancer diagnosis, that wound – and the fact that it was unhealed – was the demon with which I wrestled. I had not truly lived, fully, as myself. Right up there next to the fear of my son losing his mother was the fear that I had not truly lived yet. As a result of that awareness, I became instantly and permanently less concerned about what other people thought and about welcoming with love and compassion all the hidden, fearful, shameful parts of myself into my own awareness and into the room. My graduate school hopes came directly out of that drive to bring all the parts of myself into the room.
  3. The necessity of an honest goal. Robert Fritz is someone whose writing (The Path of Least Resistance and Your Life As Art, in particular) has inspired and shifted my awareness of what it means to have a goal, something I will call for my purposes in this writing “an honest goal.” I pondered whether or not to pursue my master’s degree at this time, and I realized that I really, truly wanted it. While I do care whether I finish and whether I get to use it, the energy the goal gives me is important to the quality of my life and not entirely about the quantity of life I have in front of me. We all take risks in taking up goals – no one has a guarantee that they’ll finish any goal they start. The important thing is the energy that the goal – one based on our true heart desires – brings to our actions, our lives, our sense of purpose. I imagined a future without this goal, and I felt a sense of collapse and resignation about it. Yuck. I need this goal as much as I hope others need me to shine with my gifts to the world.
  4. Present moment inhabitation of my own life. While graduate school and the idea of “hope” are future-driven realities, they are possible for me by cultivating my present moment awareness. I practice mindfulness meditation, and this school year, I have attended a 300-hour mindfulness teacher training. As a result, I’ve been steeped in the practice. And that practice reminds me of the fact that when I am present here and now, I’m okay. The more I can connect with here and now (which is all any of us have), the more I find that, “there’s more right with you than wrong” (Jon Kabat-Zinn).

The program I’ll be attending is a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling with an emphasis in the expressive arts at Lesley University. It’s a program that gives me the ability to work with the creative process in myself and others for healing. I’m excited to continue doing what I love (yoga, mindfulness, writing, art) and to work with these frames for holding, working with and transforming our dark, hidden parts into the art of our lives.

I write this blog for my own expression, but I also have the hope of supporting others in sharing their truth and living in a way that brings their whole selves into the room. Are you middle-aged (like me) and looking at a change in career or continuing education? Have you had a scary diagnosis that makes you afraid to hope or make big commitments? What tools have you found to navigate these paths yourself? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!

Namaste.

 

 

Reifying embodiment

(A short essay about one experience of movement from trauma space to embodiment.)
I’m in lockdown mode.

That’s what I call the external rigidity of flesh and bone, facial expression, in crisis.

On the inside, the inmates are screaming, flinging shit at the walls and rattling the bars, but through the glass of my eyes, you would see nothing but your own reflection.

I move, if at all, slowly. There’s so much more to do, and it’s harder, so I should be moving twice as fast. But sometimes I just sit and try to think, while the monkeys create chaos. I just want to sleep, really, and maybe when I awaken, things will be quieter.

I have to do yoga for a class I’m in, and instead of doing it, I think about how I can’t possibly do it three times by Friday (the requirement), and I’m weepy, feeling impossibly burdened.

And I watch that unfold because why is it I can’t do yoga three times by Friday? I have four days, after all.

Oh because I’m in lockdown, and as both jailer and prisoner, I believe it would be imprudent to move my body or to really feel my way into my feet (so far from my head, where all the important stuff is happening!).

I get out my mat, resenting that this is required of me (by whom? Oh, right, I signed up for this).

Moving hurts. My mind wonders if I could make lists while watching a yoga video? After all, if I’m really being mindful, I notice that moving my body feels painful, and it’s not nice to do that to myself, is it?

I notice the justifications, the desire to escape the present moment, and I continue to move, gently but still resentfully, woodenly. Feces from monkeys in my mind leaving tracks down the walls of my inner world. A trickle of sweat rolls down my back, and it feels remarkably like the chaos within me. I am uncomfortable.

But I keep moving. A glimmer of light peeks through, and I feel the strength of my arms holding my body up. Mmmmm, strength. My joints, inflamed, stiff joints – begin to loosen and lubricate. The lunch that was too much but that I hoped would calm my revving mind-body is right there as I fold forward, and I notice that I don’t want more food. A good noticing.

Malignant metaphor melts into hands on mat, toes tucked under to move into down dog, chest stretching open. I notice the sounds of my son singing with music in the next room, and sunlight is literally pouring through the window onto terracotta floor around me. I am back in my body, and I know that I have had a power outage for two days, that power is back, that I am no longer 40 years younger and trapped in childhood trauma. Here I am. I am okay.

I come into awareness of relationship with myself; body, breath, emotion and mind begin to flow as one. I do not banish monkeys or the jailor or even praise my reunited self. I continue to move for a few minutes more, then take the floor as my resting place for five minutes of noticing all of it with kindness.

Recovering trust after cancer

Wherever we go, there we are. Jon Kabat-Zinn said it and wrote a book about it, and it feels apt as I write about trust.

I was diagnosed with stage 2, grade 2 breast cancer a little over two years ago. I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction, and though I was given a 91% chance of no recurrence, I found myself anxious about that nine percent, nonetheless. The younger you are at diagnosis, the (theoretically, at least) longer you have in which cancer can recur. After all the medical interventions, I was left with a scarred body and a deep distrust for whether it could fight cancer off in the future. I didn’t feel I really knew without any doubt what had caused it, and I didn’t know whether all the supplements, lifestyle adjustments and medical interventions would stop me from dying a premature death from cancer. I carried a deep sense of dread that all the early life trauma I’d experienced had so damaged my nervous system and my body that there was nothing I could do to undo that and its ripples in my life.

I teach meditation, something that I restarted after cancer. Given a clean bill of health by my doctors but still deeply anxious, I realized my greatest enemy wasn’t cancer but my own mind. I couldn’t tell you how many days, months or years I had left to live, but I could tell you I wasn’t present for my life now because I was too caught up in anxiety. So I returned to seated practice, to various somatic (body-based) practices to help calm my anxiety, and I recently attended a week-long meditation retreat, including four days of silence, in order to support my practice and my work as a teacher.

I shifted two aspects of my practice, based on the instruction at this retreat, which was based on mindfulness meditation.

  1. Rather than observing sensation in the body as if one were standing on a river bank watching the river (which I had done previously), work to be in the flow of the river itself, experiencing the sensation moment to moment.
  2. Practice compassion and welcome toward whatever arises. I’d previously practiced non-judgment, but this shift involved cultivating a sense of warmth and kindness toward the experiences that I had.

On a retreat, we have a rather intense opportunity to observe ourselves without distraction to an extent that is generally not possible. Without electronic devices and social interactions, I had the opportunity to be social with myself.

As we sat in meditation, and I began to doubt that all the work I was doing really had a purpose, our instructor (Fleet Maull) encouraged us to trust. He asked us to consider who might need us to “deepen,” a shift of perspective that helped me immensely. Who in my life could benefit from me deepening my consciousness, my compassion, a shift out of reactivity? I could think of many, and it buoyed me.

I returned to my practice, and I found so many arguments arise, though. Trust? Why should I trust? Life feels inherently unsafe. Spiritual, medical and intellectual leaders betray us all the time. I don’t even trust that there’s a religion that has answers; each religion seems to get in its own way at some point, taking a good message and using that message to control people and further an agenda that seems far from God. I could say more, but I think this was representative of my arguments against trust, representative of my fear.

So I sat with my fear. I felt it as it coursed through my body, twisting my intestines, creating a sharp pain in my upper left chest (right in the spot where my cancer started). And every time I became aware of it, I met it with compassion. I welcomed it. I “invited it to tea,” as Tara Brach suggests.

Silent sobs wracked my body. I went back to childhood and infancy in my mind. I felt my mother’s profound disconnection from me; as a paranoid schizophrenic, she was utterly incapable of seeing my needs as what they were – normal, human, baby/child needs for attunement, care, nurture. As I felt those childhood wounds, the pain in my chest resonated in response: yes, here is where that pain wounded me. I held it with all the intensity of a mother holding her wailing, inconsolable child. Every mother who ever inspired me with her example of tenderness (and I have been blessed to learn from many good mothers in my life), was with me now as I held that younger self and soothed her. I witnessed her suffering with compassion and tenderness. I acknowledged the depth of her suffering.

I don’t know how long this took, how many days of sitting passed with the waves of this process coming up, receding, returning, receding. Eventually, they calmed. I could still see that child in my mind’s eye, and I continued to honor her experience, but she receded, as well. She became smaller and less central to my awareness. Fleet told us at the beginning of the retreat that we would have “front row seats” to our own minds, and I envisioned it as a circus. The wounded child was in her own ring of that circus, but others began to arise in my awareness.

At some point, I found myself asking who I was before the abuse and suffering of my early life, and immediately an image of my earliest self appeared in my mind’s eye: a radiant being with wise eyes and an easy smile. Oh, that’s who I amI thought. I was also flooded with warmth and love for my mother, something that had been twisted and flattened by the tortured years of our relationship. I loved her so much! Of course, I internalized all that pain – what else could I do? I loved her and protected her, and we both did the best we could. I was also inundated with gratitude for all the people and resources who had given to me over the years: examples of loving kindness, of generosity, of teaching, of mentorship. What had seemed like not enough for decades shifted to feeling abundantly filling and satisfying. As this process unfolded, the pain in my chest ceased, and I felt a shift in my body’s energy and my alignment; I envisioned a stream of river that had been diverted to the left side of my body by trauma. Now it was back to the center and flowing upward from there.

I saw one other thing: I saw that I had never been separated from the fabric of the Universe. I lost my bearings and felt I was separate from God, from others, from myself. The analogy we hear in meditation instruction is that of the ocean and the waves: our thoughts and emotions are the waves, and we can feel that they are real. However, if we drop below the surface a bit, we find the stillness and calm of the ocean. In my practice, I’ve begun to contact that ocean and to realize it’s much bigger than my own experience. It is the nature of God Himself/Herself, and I am never disconnected. I may become distracted by a lot of shiny objects, but I can awaken again and again and again to this connection.

I began this blog talking about trust and restoration of trust after cancer, and this process has been key for me personally. The biggest fear I had after diagnosis was that I would die soon, and that I would leave Isaac without a mother. The terror of him going through that pain was unbearable to me. What I didn’t see two years ago and for awhile beyond was that cancer was giving me a chance to re-explore the wounds from my childhood – the terror of separation from Mother and all she represented – and to heal. To find my place in the fabric of things, and by extension, Isaac’s and everyone else’s place in that fabric. The deep anxiety in my gut that is very tied with real fears in my childhood is no longer necessary; it has permission to soften, to relax, to allow others to have their own experience. I no longer need to control that, or control my own experience. I am inherently safe and inviolable.

Though I do not agree with everything the Apostle Paul said, his letter to the Romans (Chapter 8, verses 38-39) came to mind during my meditation, and I felt the truth of the words in a way I struggled to for decades after I first read them:  

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (New American Standard Version)

I don’t know what anyone else’s healing looks like, and I can’t recommend that everyone do what I have done. But I share my own story to give others hope that deep healing is possible; that cancer and its terrors and pain are not forever or all-encompassing; that healing is more than recovery from the cancer, surgeries and medical interventions. We are more than our suffering. May we all find our way home.

 

 

Heavenly Father v. the Earth Goddess: cosmic battle or splitting hairs?

I’ve been a religious convert in my life. At 13, I invited Jesus into my heart, and I had a genuine religious conversion: I felt my connection with God and knew, finally, that I was not alone. After a childhood of increasing alienation, pain and abuse, I needed that sense of connection in a profound way, and I still see that conversion in a positive light.

But evangelicalism adds a layer to the spiritual experience that I only later discerned wasn’t actually a necessary part of my religious life. When my church friends and ministers said (all of them) that it was necessary to study the bible, pray, do missions, give 10% of my income to God (that would be gross income), remain a virgin until I was married (and keep my thoughts “pure,” as well), evangelize, not swear, respect my parents, be a submissive woman (and not speak with authority to men), dress modestly (whatever that means), and so on, I did my best to comply. I also became aware over time that there was no chance of actually living a life that was pleasing to God.

Now, I know what an evangelical would say: that’s the point! We can’t possibly live a life that is pleasing to God, which is why we need Jesus and his substitutionary death on the cross. However, it seemed that most Christians were pretty intent on having both: living a perfect life – or at least projecting one – and Jesus’ grace. It was like super-sizing your grace experience: God’s grace + your own awesomeness = even more grace! Woohoo! Keep striving for perfection, and keep your eyes on a Heavenly Father who will make up for your faults in heaven.

Eventually, it became obvious to me that what I’d heaped onto my own experience of God’s grace at the beginning was actually soul-killing. It added to my sense of shame and worthlessness and kept me from thinking of anyone but my own image. I left that faith in 1992, at the age of 23.

I’m 48 now. I’m not actually a convert to the earth religions, but it becomes clearer and clearer that we are intrinsically connected to the earth. Everything we put into her, we get back. We quite literally reap what we sow. Pour chemicals into the earth? We get chemicals back. Pump chemicals into the sky? We breathe them in. It’s karma: we get back what we give. The Earth Mother cannot give us nutrients from anything other than her own body, and we have callously poured filth into her. Some of us wonder why we get sick, why people suffer. It’s as if we have a very strange sense of amnesia about actions we continue to take in which we are actually poisoning ourselves, here and now.

What if “sin,” or “missing the mark” is not about some abstract concept – some stamp on the soul that is unseen but makes every action we take incapable of pleasing God; and sin is, rather, that we do the very thing that harms us and others, with impunity? If we fling our filth all around us and wonder why we and those we love suffer?

I understand why a miraculously interventionist, above-it-all Heavenly Father is attractive at this point. “God is in charge,” my evangelical friends say. We really, really want to be rescued from our own destructive actions. I get that. I really wish that we would not have to reap what we’ve sown and what we continue to sow. I wish we could get a heavenly squeegee to suck up oil spills out of our water – or lead, for that matter. I wish that years of spreading glyphosphate on our plants and earth had not caused our food supply to be contaminated. I look at my child and the children of my friends and wish for them to have safe food, air, water. And these are the privileged children! What about all the precious children who do not have the resources of filtered water, good healthcare, expensive organic foods?

What if God would, with a sweep of his hand, create a new heaven and a new earth and wipe away our sins – our flagrant disregard for the equation: reap = sow?

Religious leaders play off this division of an abstract Heavenly Father and the very concrete Earth Mother. It’s like the children whose father is off to work, taking advantage of their harried mother. These leaders will parse the scriptures to undermine the Mother’s significance, will tell us that they alone understand the precise way in which we must approach the throne of God in order to be right with him. “Reaping what you sow” becomes a mysterious accounting system, behind the veil of our earlthy ignorance, and they speak as if they had had a peek behind that veil.

I’m a cancer survivor. I also have family members and friends who have had cancer, some of whom have died. I frequently work with cancer survivors. I hear and read cancer-related information all the time, ranging from the personal devastation of the diagnosis to the medical perspective on its causes and treatments, to the complementary medicine perspectives on the same. I see over and over how it impacts individuals and their families, their extended communities. Its tendrils extend far and wide.

Some people try to deny that our explosion of cancers has anything to do with the poisons in our environment – our food, our air, our water. We throw up our hands: it’s just some random genetic anomaly. What can we do? But when you add carcinogen after carcinogen into everything we consume and interact with, eventually, it’s hard to deny that it may have a role in our cancer rates.

It would be nice to have a Heavenly Father – someone above and outside this earthly existence who can and will sweep away all our sins and leave us pure as snow, the earth returned to her previous glory. Silly us, for ever doubting that it could be so! Silly us for thinking we sinful beings could do anything to change the inexorable will of God regarding the number of days of our lives. Silly us for thinking we are powerful and could do anything to shift the course of our own futures.

But what if that is a convenient construct that allows us to sin with impunity against the earth on whom we depend for every breath, every bite of food, every sip of water? What if she is not a “thing” God gave us, a commodity we will throw out in order to get a new one in the future? What if she is, rather, a precious gift, given to us to be tended, to be loved and cared for, her dust the very thing that makes our flesh, her resources a metaphor for the tender care of the Divine for Her children?

I understand the desire for an intervening Heavenly Father, but I fear we have desecrated the Mother and will continue to suffer until we have learned our lessons and changed our ways. And what Good Father would be pleased with children who violate the Mother? It’s an important question with which to wrestle. What if it’s not “Earth Goddess vs. Heavenly Father,” but rather two parents united, and we not only need to face the music in the future (in a wait-until-your-father-gets-home sort of way) but are facing it more and more loudly every day?

Holding diagnoses with a loose fist

Words. Diagnoses are words, and they can either serve us, or they can bring us to our knees. When I try words on for size, any labels at all, any lists I make, I ask myself who is serving whom. Do the words serve me, help me to do better, help me to find my wholeness? Or do I become enslaved to the words, afraid of their weight?

Cancer was a diagnosis that gripped my heart, guts and mind for many months. It grabbed them and gave them a twist, often at 3:00 a.m. I used meditation and journal writing (and still do) to pry each talon out from the tender flesh of mind and spirit and to tame the words of that diagnosis into something I could use as information for my own good, rather than as a curse.

I wrote a blog post a few days ago about my back pain, for which I was finally able to get into the chiropractor/acupuncturist’s office. I’ve gotten a lot of relief from that appointment and am very hopeful about the care I’m receiving. But I also find myself back in the seat of “patient,” and making decisions about how I hold the various labels, the bits of information I glean from that time.

With every new practitioner I meet, I repeat my history. I’m reminded that I have genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors that could set me up for failure in the health arena. When I first started to name those things in decades past, to put labels on them, it distressed me greatly. Each one felt like a fatal flaw. I could never be perfect like so many other people seemed to be. I decided to overcome, to fix, to heal.

Cancer came along and was a blow to that effort.  At first, I thought, “Wow, all I’ve done my whole life to try to fix myself has culminated in this. That didn’t work out quite the way I’d hoped and planned.”

But it also set me free.I got a flash of insight during those early days of diagnosis and surgeries that I’d been wasting my time with self-hatred and efforts to fix myself. What I needed was to love myself. Absolutely every part of myself, without reservation. Whether I had weeks to live or decades, I knew that I didn’t want to waste my life on earth in self-hatred.

Back pain was a temptation to return to the urge to try to crawl out of my own skin. It can be frightening to be in pain and not know when it will end, in much the same way  it can be frightening to inhabit a life with what feels like a death sentence hanging over it.

I have learned to hold all the words, all the labels, with a loose fist. They don’t define me; they can help me to make choices, but they aren’t me. I am more than the categories of my ailments, and if my care providers don’t understand that, I need to do my best to either educate them that that is so, or I need to move along.* If a label doesn’t help me, I let it go. If it helps me to care tenderly for myself, to love life and life-affirming action, then I use it for that purpose.

 

*Dr. Janine Pulley, North Andover, Massachusetts is the chiropractor/acupuncturist I went to, and she is awesomeI don’t have any criticism of her care or her attitude about me as a patient.