On the Evening of a Bad Day

I know that no one ever promised life would be fair. 

I know there is no reason that this shouldn’t have happened to me and no reason why it did.
I know that sometimes things just happen and we don’t know why.

I also know that I’m fine in myself, which is how I say that I am basically, fundamentally at peace and that a stream of quiet joy and serenity flows underneath all the hard stuff and that once I calm down I’ll be able to tap into it again.

I know all those things.

But right now? Right now I’m sad that I’m in pain and that I have advanced cancer and that my life has become so limited. (*)

I’m glad that I have friends around the world and that I can reach out to them and have contact within minutes, less. But I wish there was someone here who would put their arms around me and hold me and pray with me and stroke my hair and help me through the hard parts.

Sometimes people write very complimentary things to me in the comments of posts. That is part of the reason that I think it’s important to write about these times, too. Yes, I practice mindfulness—but not all the time. Yes, I know how to change my attitude—but sometimes I don’t have the strength to do it.

I get down, I get angry, I get lonely, I get frustrated. These feelings come and they are awful. But I also know that “feelings are not the boss of me”, as I like to say. I know that in a few hours or the next day I’ll be back to baseline.

So right now I’m going to make some hot chocolate and take a sleeping pill and set another pain pill out ready in case I need it during the night. I’m going to spend some time with my friends on Facebook—and these are real people, real friends—and then I’ll go to bed for the night.

This sonnet by Keats fits my feeling at this time. Sleep, comfort, loneliness, death.

To Sleep

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
      In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
      Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
      Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
      Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

(*) Up to this point, the text is copied from my Facebook status.

It’s not death, it’s the dying.

Still Life Pharmacy

Still Life Pharmacy

In what may be the unkindest cut of all, having cancer doesn’t give you a pass on all the other ailments of (in my case) middle age: GERD, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, joint pain… I am dying of cancer but I want to be as comfortable as possible until then and I don’t want a heart attack or a stroke to put a cramp in my style while I’m waiting for the cancer to kill me. Put all this together and it spells lots of medicine.

To the left here you can see some of what I take every day. Unlike the United States, where patients receive their pills in a little vialwith a label on it that, among other information, tells you how to take them, here in Jerusalem we get our medicine in boxes of bubble packs. There is no label on the box, especially when it’s something you take on a regular basis.

Now, I’m all in favor of taking responsibility for my health, but today I had a very scary experience. I came up face-to-face with the decline of my intellect and the dependence on others that is approaching as I move steadily toward the end of my life. It was a little thing, maybe, but incredibly significant to me and I took it hard.

The medicines for the coming month were all in front of me on the table and so was the partitioned case for me to put out my week’s meds. A looked at the case and I looked at the boxes and bubble packs and… suddenly went blank. Which one is in the morning and which is at night? Is this the one I take two of or is it the half-tablet? Wasn’t there something that isn’t every day or was that only because of the tests? What do I do with all this?

I started to cry. Not so much because of this moment of confusion, but because I was looking my future in the eye. The future of being unable to care for myself. The future of losing control of everything (maybe even my sphincters). The future of someone else deciding what I would take for pain and what I would eat and when I would have a wash and what books I would listen to – because I would either be unable to do it for myself or – even worse – would be deemed by others to be unable.

I was looking at the end of my life, not in three decades or more, but in just a couple of years. (I like to say I have two to five years left, but I pulled that number out of the air.) The end of my life.

Yes, yes, we are all going to die, and no one knows when. Take that as read. I get it. Yes, a rocket could fall on me or a car could hit me or my computer could electrocute me. I get it. But that is all very unlikely. It is not only likely but quite certain (barring an act of God, which by their nature are very rare) that I will die of metastatic disease and I will die of it very soon.

This might be one reason that chemo brain upsets me so much. I can manage the actual deficits with the little tricks and methods I spent my nursing career teaching patients. But it is almost a dramatic foreshadowing of what awaits me just a little ways down the road.

I’m fine with dying. I have very strong beliefs and death doesn’t frighten me. I’m even looking forward to “seeing” some dearly loved people who have died before me. But that whole “dying” thing – the weeks (months?) before death? No. Do not want.

I find myself with a new understanding of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem. Maybe the rage is not at “the good night”, death, but at “the dying of the light” – the decline of one’s faculties.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Canticle of the Sun

Today, the fourth of October, is the feast day of Francis of Assisi. Popular culture has made of him a sort of tree-hugging hippie – and there is that side to him – but the spirituality he developed and lived is exigent in the extreme. Nothing wishy-washy about it.

The son of a merchant, Francis was not well-educated. Clare of Assisi, the nobleman’s daughter who together with him founded the order that came to be known as the Poor Clares, had much better Latin than he. Nevertheless, Francis composed a number of poems or songs in the dialect of his native Umbria. The only one to have come down to us so far is the Canticle of the Sun, composed shortly before his death. In fact, it is said that the last verse, the praises of “our Sister Bodily Death” was composed minutes before he died.

I love this text because it is at the same time exalted and lowly, magnificent and simple, spiritual and practical – like Francis and Clare themselves.

This translation from the Umbrian text of the Assisi Codex is attributed to Bill Barrett.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. 
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.

Despair and Hope

As voluble as our generations are when talking about our feelings, we didn’t invent that kind of emotional transparency. In fact, I sometimes think that earlier generations were more creative about it, particularly the poets.

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who looks at my poetry posts, that Emily Dickinson is one of my favorites. Feminine, independent, strong, emotional, spiritual, clever and intelligent – few poets touch me as she does and has done since I first read her when I was a child. Each of these poems expresses a state of being that is opposed to, yet intimately connected, with the other.

First, “It was not death, for I stood up” (355):

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine –
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –
When everything that ticked – has stopped –
And space stares – all around –
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground –
But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or spar –
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair.


And then, the better known “Hope is the thing with feathers”(254):

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

“If pain for peace prepares” Interpreted

On September 11th I posted a poem by Emily Dickinson, If pain for peace prepares. Several people found it pretty impenetrable and let me know in the comments or by email and telephone, so I thought I’d post my interpretation of the poem to see if that helps at all. Please let me know in the comments if you understand it differently. That would make for an interesting discussion. I’ll start by paraphrasing the poem.

If pain for peace prepares
Lo, what “Augustan” years
Our feet await! 

If the experience of pain prepares us for the experience of peace, then in the future a time of peaceful contemplation is awaiting us.

If springs from winter rise,
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?

If winter gives way to spring, then the flowers will be to numerous to count.

If night stands fast — then noon
To gird us for the sun,
What gaze!

If the darkness of the night is preparing our vision so that we can can behold the sun, what a sight it will be…

When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
Noons blaze!

… when our well prepared  eyes behold the light of a thousand suns in a thousand skies.

In other words, I read this poem as a declaration of hope and a call for patience in suffering, as a statement of belief that just as shadows define light, as white space and margins define a page, pain and suffering allow us to fully experience peace and joy.

Dickinson employs a strong rhythm in this poem (without slavishly holding to it ), something she does not always do. In each of the stanzas the first two lines are more or less rhythmic, suggesting movement to me, and the third line consists of two equally stressed syllables (again, without strict adherence).

Da DUM da DUM da DUM
Da DUM da DUM da DUM

(One of the things I love about her is her refusal to allow rhyme or rhythm to force themselves on the words and meaning, thereby not allowing us to be lulled by repetition but surprising us and keeping our attention engaged.)

On a “macro” level, the level I was intending when I chose to post the poem on the anniversary of the worst terrorist strike the United States has ever known, the poem suggests a way of marking the pain, shock and horror of that day with a view to the future – the idea that calm follows a storm, that a field must be plowed and disturbed in order to be planted and produce its fruits, that the pain of childbirth ends with the limitless possibilities of a new life entering the world.

On the individual level, this poem is very encouraging to me. Without too much gooey sentimentality (I don’t take to that very well) it reminds me that my physical, emotional or spiritual pain are limited. That the pain will give way to much more than absence of pain. It will open in the way a beautiful flower opens from a bud to reveal something very different, something wonderful.

Pain and suffering are never the end of the story.

If pain for peace prepares

Today, the eleventh of September, 2012, I offer this poem by Emily Dickinson, written in 1860 and published posthumously in 1924.

If pain for peace prepares
Lo, what “Augustan” years
Our feet await! 
If springs from winter rise,
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?
If night stands fast — then noon
To gird us for the sun,
What gaze!
When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
Noons blaze!

Take Umbrage or Move Forward?

This poem by Ben Downing appeared in the July/August 2012 print edition of The Atlantic. By means of simple couplets and just four uncomplicated sentences, it communicates a home truth: “[umbrage] makes us less”.


Taken, given:
friendships riven.

From shadow or shade,
it instantly puts paid

to hard-won clarities
and causes us to freeze

up with unearned righteousness;
it makes us less.

How much better to combat it.
We should take umbrage at it.

There is a quotation lately attributed to Benedict Arnold, the war hero-turned-traitor of the American Revolution: If your great umbrage would care to meet my high dudgeon at 12 paces, I would be happy to entertain you at dawn. I haven’t been able to confirm the quote or to find any context for it; in fact, it appears to have originated in a History Channel film. Be that as it may, it is a wonderful example of where taking umbrage can lead – not to resolution of problems, but to “friendships riven”.

You know those people who take everything personally? I used to be one of them, and let me tell you – it is a painful way to live. I spent hours – days! – feeling hurt, angry, frustrated. I was paralyzed,  chewing over what I should have said, imagining what people thought of me, planning how I would get back at them. (I never did.) In other words, I was blocked. There was no way to move forward while I sat wallowing in so much powerful negativity.

Eventually, I worked that out and realized that I had to start taking responsibility for my feelings. The self-help world is full of pithy sayings to this end. What people think of you is none of your business. When people insult you, it says more about them than about you. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Feeling resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I decided to quit worrying about the others and to make my life as good as I possibly could. I never looked back.

Of course, I still get angry sometimes. I can still feel hurt by an inconsiderate remark. I still react with pain to insults. The difference, I think, is in the duration and in what I do with the feeling. These days I can usually realize how I’m feeling, understand why I feel that way, make a decision where to go with it. Sometimes I have to look at myself and deal with the truth in hurtful words, change myself. Sometimes I can laugh off the insult as being based in the other person’s inner world.

Sometimes they really hit on a sensitive point and it’s not so easy to move on, but I do my best to get over it with the resources I have at my disposal. It’s not always quickly accomplished, but it’s always the goal. You know the saying “Living well is the best revenge”? That’s not the reason I work on myself and try to become a better person, but as a side effect it’s not entirely unwelcome.

Death. Change. Life.

The Oasis of Ein Gedi, west of the Dead Sea.

It’s a poetry reading kind of day and I turned, as I so often do, to Emily Dickinson. Thumbing through a couple of collections, here is where I stopped (poem 749):

All but Death, can be Adjusted—
Dynasties repaired—
Systems—settled in their Sockets—
Wastes of Lives—resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs—
Death—unto itself—Exception—
Is exempt from Change—

It’s odd to read such an optimistic poem in which death features so prominently, but it exactly suits me at this moment.

All but Death, can be Adjusted… I’ll speak to this a little more when I get to the last line of the poem, but for now I am reading it at face value. Death is the only thing that is inexorable, unavoidable, unchangeable.  Death will come to all creatures. It is the only inevitable.

Everything else can be Adjusted, changed somehow. Dynasties and governments can be repaired or replaced. Systems (for me right now that speaks loudly of bureaucracy) can be settled in their Sockets, they can be dealt with, controlled, tamed. Citadels, seats of power, both physical and moral or psychological, can be dissolved, can be conquered or undermined, made to dissapear.

Wastes of Lives can be resown with Colors. This is a particularly beautiful image. Imagine someone’s painful, lonely, guilt-ridden, fearful, anxious, limited life as a broad expanse of wasteland. Now watch as it gains new life By Succeeding Springs – springs in both senses: water sources and seasons of growth. Spring after spring floods the wasteland and changes it until it is resown with Colors. We have all seen that, many of us have experienced it, some of us have been privileged to work with people in the wastes of their lives, slowly and patiently, until they, too are resown with Colors. I can think of no greater joy, no greater privilege.

So we have see that Dynasties and Systems and Citadels and Wastes of Lives are not inevitable, they can be changed. Only Death–unto itself–Exception / Is exempt from Change, says Dickinson.

Yes… and no, says Knot Telling.

Yes, death is inevitable. Everything that is alive will one day die. So in that sense, yes: All but Death, can be Adjusted. But for me, there is a larger sense that derives from my spirituality and my religious beliefs.

I believe that death itself is a change, a passage from one plane of existence to another, just as real but very different. Theologians and mystics provide all kinds of (sometimes amusingly conflicting) details about in what the difference consists. I don’t worry myself about such things. I content myself with knowing that my bodily death will come, probably sooner rather later at this point, and that something else, something unimaginably different and wonderful awaits me. As Francis of Assisi said in The Canticle of the Sun “Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.” Yes, embrace! When our Sister Bodily Death comes for me, I will embrace her and we will dance as she guides me through to the next thing.

As I’ve said here before, and I insist again, I’m no bliss ninny. I am not rushing headlong toward death, but I know it will come and with Stage IV cancer that will most probably be sooner rather than later. I am concerned about being dependent on others at the end of my life, but I am not in the least worried about what will come after I die. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Till We Have Faces: A Novel of Cupid and Psyche, “Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

See you there, when the time comes!

Love and longing

Changing the tone a little bit today, I’d like to share Poem XXVI from A.E. Housman’s The Shropshire Lad. The gentle rhythm and straightforward rhymes belie the complexity of the underlying emotions.

I’d love to hear your reactions.

The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.
I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.

Unchanging in the face of change

A sonnet today. Shakespeare.

Love, he says, is constant: unchanging even in the face of change, unfaltering even in a raging storm. It is a fixed point of reference even when it it is undervalued.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle’s compass come: 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

Love might be butterflies and daisies to many people, but to me – and apparently to Shakespeare – it’s a rock.