I had the privilege recently of being interviewed on Laurie McGrath’s great program, “Aging Reimagined,” which airs on KSFR-FM 101.1 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my hometown. If you’de like to listen, the podcast is at http://agingreimagined.libsyn.com/
One of the greatest privileges of being a minister is officiating at weddings. In most states, anyone can marry a couple; you don’t need a minister to tie the knot. In fact, lots of people march themselves down the “aisle” at their local courthouse, with a county clerk or local judge they’ve never met before acting as their officiant. And that’s fine.
But for many people, having a ceremony that feels personal, sacred and authentic is an important first step in their marriage—even if they’ve been together for 30 years!
Looking over the list of weddings I’ve performed, I realize they’ve been amazing, each in its own way. Just a few of the diverse couples I have married:
An American-born man to a Mexican-American man, together 17 years
Two Latino women nurses, together 36 years
A 60-plus retired teacher/farmer and a retired college professor (both female)
Numerous young couples of varying religious backgrounds
Two young artists
Two middle-aged writers
Two interior designers, a gay couple together 25+ years
A Filipino-American woman and her American-born husband
A 60+ couple on their second marriages
An Anglo woman and a Mexican-American man
The weddings have been held in private homes, in churches, in a historic chapel, in a museum, in a courthouse, and in hotel lobbies in Santa Fe, Oakland and San Diego. The couples have hailed from New Mexico, California, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Some have been fancy weddings with wedding planners, chamber ensembles, catered dinners and open bars; others have been attended only by the couple and their two witnesses and celebrated with an inexpensive bottle of champagne and a grocery-store cake. Some have included religious references and prayers to God; others have avoided all mention of anything spiritual-sounding.
Several have included rituals such as the “unity candle” and cultural practices including the Mexican lasso and the Filipino coin, rose petals and veil rituals. One ceremony included a dog wearing a wreath designed by the florist who did the other flowers for the event. (The dog planted itself right in front of the couple and watched the whole thing attentively!) For one outdoor ceremony, the artist couple built and decorated a bower and made small wooden circles with hearts emblazoned on them to hold the programs on the chairs.
I and other participants at the weddings have read from the Bible, Rumi, Hafiz, Walt Whitman, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, William Blake, A.A. Milne, Dr. Seuss and any number of other unexpected and traditional sources. I’ve married dear friends and complete strangers, planned ceremonies in person, by phone, by email and by Skype; sometimes I haven’t seen the couple’s faces until an hour before the ceremony!In other words, every single wedding has been unique.
And every single one has been beautiful.
And they all have been deeply meaningful to me.
Because marrying people isn’t just conducting a legal event or a performance, although it includes both those aspects.
When I marry a couple, I feel I am the spiritual representative of their community, if only for a day. I am speaking the words and embodying the cultural symbol of authority necessary to lend credence and a sense of the sacred to the event. I am the shaman, the medicine person, the tribal chieftain, and yes, the crone.
I have worked with the couple to write a personal ceremony that reflects their spiritual and/or philosophical beliefs, that includes readings that express their hopes for their marriage, and that recognizes those who have contributed to their lives and love for each other. I include the guests in the ceremony, asking their blessing for the marriage.
The point of all of these things is to create an event that will live on in the couple’s memories, not just in the video or the photographs or the wedding presents or their rings—all important in their own way—but in their hearts. So that when things aren’t perfect, or in fact are absolutely terrible, they will recall the words of their vows, the look in the other’s eyes as the words were spoken through tears, and decide just for one more day or week or month not to give up on each other.
Surprisingly, weddings can be just as important to some of the guests. Many couples say they barely remember some aspects of their own weddings, they were so anxious and excited on that day. But when they are attending the wedding of another couple they love, their own vows come back to them, and their own marriage is revived in their hearts. (Watch how many guests who are couples grab each other’s hands during a ceremony!)
For parents and grandparents, watching the “kids” get married affirms a job well done and ensures the future happiness of those they have long supported and for whom they have sacrificed so much. Even those guests whose marriages have failed, or who have yet to find their true-life partners, can be inspired by their friends’ happiness; maybe this will happen for them as well.
Obviously, I am an unabashed advocate of marriage. I don’t think it has to mean all the things it once did, many of which are misogynist and otherwise unacceptable to most of us today. Today we can make our own marriages, create our own rules and boundaries and little daily rituals and holiday traditions. Today, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, all couples can be married in the United States, regardless of sexual orientation. What a long-awaited blessing!
When I tell people I perform weddings, inevitably their response is, “Oh, that must be fun!” Yes, it is. It’s a happy counterpart to some of the more somber aspects of my work as a minister. It’s also a deeply intimate act—however brief—of connectedness with other human beings. Though I may never see the couple again, we have shared something very important in the time we have spent together. I am so grateful that performing weddings is a part of my work. I look forward to marrying many other couples.
And—don’t tell anyone, but at the weddings I perform, when no one is looking?—I almost always cry.
Last Sunday I had the opportunity to take the pulpit at First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, and once again, I talked about homelessness.[Here is the link, if you’d like to listen to the sermon: “Angels in Disguise” in Albuquerque]
After I was invited to speak at UU-ABQ, I felt I couldn’t simply take the last sermon I’d done on homelessness in Santa Fe and “export” it to Albuquerque, so I visited a few of the shelters in the Duke City. I spent a little time at the Heading Home/Albuquerque Opportunity Center, the downtown Albuquerque Rescue Mission, and Barrett House, a transitional housing center for homeless women. Employees of each of these places spent some of their precious time telling me about their guests, their challenges, and their dreams for the future. It was, as always, a humbling experience. I work at Pete’s Place, the interfaith homeless shelter in Santa Fe, once a week as a volunteer chaplain. That’s quite different from working with the homeless and their never-ending problems on an ongoing basis. I salute those people who have the tolerance, compassion and determination to do this important work every day (especially my friends at Pete’s Place).
But what I learned was interesting. The homeless people of Albuquerque are really no different than the homeless people in Santa Fe. And though there may be regional differences, I’m betting if I spent time in a Los Angeles shelter, or a Des Moines shelter, or a Fort Lauderdale shelter, I would find people with the same problems and challenges everywhere.
So, though I rewrote my “Angels in Disguise” sermon for the Albuquerque audience, the sentiments are the same. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll take the time to watch the new version of this sermon.
One of the people who inspires me is Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in Santa Fe recently. The gang members his program helps face many of the same challenges as the homeless. He calls these disenfranchised people “the easily despised, the readily left out, the demonized, the disposable.”
“How do we obliterate, once and for all, the idea that we are separate?” he asks. “The truth is we’re all in need of healing. . . .All of us are a whole lot more than the worst things we’ve ever done.”
But all is not about the individual. “If love is the answer, community is the context,” Father Boyle says.
We must face problems such as homelessness and gangs through community, in concert together. We must see the suffering as our kin. We must learn that “service is the hallway that gets you to the ballroom,” according to Father Boyle.
How are you being of service in your community? Perhaps working with the homeless or gang members is not your choice. Find something, some way in which you can help other people, and I promise you, you will find a freedom and joy you never imagined could be yours. The rent can be overdue, your spouse can be angry with you, the IRS can be challenging your tax return. . . but you can make peace with all of this when you are in service to others whose suffering is greater than yours.
As Father Boyle suggests, “Imagine a circle of compassion, and then imagine no one standing outside of it.” Can I get an “Amen?”
The man at the left—Danny Jones—was too shy to let me photograph him for a slide show I did earlier this year about Pete’s Place, the interfaith shelter for the homeless in Santa Fe, where I volunteer as chaplain once a week. Danny died last week at the apartment that shelter workers had helped him procure. He had lived under a bridge for years prior to that, and it took a great deal of courage on his part (and encouragement from the shelter staff and volunteers) to get Danny, a veteran with many problems, into that apartment to stay.
Danny apparently died in his sleep of natural causes. He had many medical problems, some related to his years of homelessness. I had last seen him at the shelter—where he still came by to see the Health Care for the Homeless nurse— a few days before his death. I am so grateful I had talked with him recently.
When I first met Danny, he scared me. He was usually unclean and always unkempt, his hair longish and greasy, his beard untrimmed, his hairy stomach sticking out of his too-tight shirt. He had very few teeth, and as a result, it was almost impossible to understand him. He would stare at me out from under his ancient ball cap whenever I tried to make contact, then growl at me, and when I said, “I’m sorry sir, what did you say?” he’d wave a hand at me in disgust and look away, or struggle to his feet and walk off.
But something happened one day. I understood something Danny said. I think I had asked him something banal, like, “How are you today, Danny?” and he mumbled back, “Awful!” I stopped. “What’s wrong?” I asked, sincerely. “What’s not wrong?” he quipped. Hallelujah! We had connected. It was a start.
Our conversations often were simple verbal jousts, he usually pretending to complain about something, me querying, he making a clever comeback. Our relationship soon became physical. Danny liked to pretend he was going to hit me, or push me over, or elbow me. The first few times he did this, I was startled, and jumped away as if my life was at stake. And then I got it. Danny wanted to play!
After that, whenever Danny pretended he was going to smack me (and instead smacked his fist into his other hand, not into my face) I would do the same, act as if I were going to punch him in the arm, and then miss. I also began to make it a point to put a hand around Danny’s shoulder, or on his back. It was purely instinctual on my part, but when I later thought about it, I realized probably no one ever touched Danny (except, perhaps that nurse he needed!).
To me, this is one of the greatest tragedies of being a homeless person: most are loners. A few have partners and presumably intimate lives, including the healing touch of someone who cares. But many get little in the way of safe human touch except perhaps for an isolated sexual encounter. The women in the shelter hug one another, and some hug the men. But the men rarely touch each other, except in that locker-room, brawling fashion of slapping each other on the back or arm.
So I made a point of touching Danny, and Danny never violated the unspoken covenant invoked by my touch. That is, he never touched me inappropriately. The last day I saw him, he was sitting at one of the dining hall tables. I stood, talking with him, and put my hand on his shoulder. He put his hand on my calf, and we stood there, comfortable together, talking amiably. He had come by to see the nurse, he said, as always; his knees were hurting. I was always amazed that his physical complaints were so few. Danny was obese, and I suspected diabetic; I knew he sometimes drank, had smelled alcohol on his breath and seen signs of drunkenness. But he wasn’t always drunk, and he was never surly or belligerent to me or others, that I saw. The skin on his hands was terribly calloused from years of exposure to weather. He must have hurt all of the time, inside and out.
The most I ever learned about Danny was that he was from somewhere in Kansas, and had been a truck driver at one time. He could talk about the highways all over the Midwest and West, the places you didn’t want to get caught in a snowstorm, and the like. I never heard him mention a family member, wife or children. Once I saw him on the street and walked out of the shelter to talk to him, afraid he wasn’t coming in that day. We talked about how Santa Fe had changed, the businesses on Cerrillos Road that had disappeared, how different everything was now, compared to years ago. As neighbors do.
There was just something about Danny, and I loved that something. Perhaps it was that playful little boy I perceived in him, joking and jousting and joshing, which belied his years and his suffering. He seemed to be who he was, not pretending to be anything different.
I am going to miss Danny. I will even miss his hairy stomach. I remember how Joe, the shelter’s director, begged Danny to take a shower one day, even found a new, clean shirt that would fit him, and just when Joe thought Danny had agreed, he was gone.
At some point, I quit seeing Danny’s oversized gut, and I quit worrying about whether I understood everything he said. I believe we had achieved what Father Gregory Boyle says is the most important thing to achieve: kinship. We were both just people, after all, trying to get by.
So many people pass us by during our lives. The ones we remember are not always the ones we expect to remember. I know I’m going to remember Danny.
I see that I have not been posting here often enough lately! That’s good—it means I’ve been very busy, doing weddings, running my workshops for women with breast and reproductive cancer, working with legacy memoir clients and doing one-on-one spiritual direction! And this weekend I had the honor of giving my third sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe, where I am a member. It’s about some of the most important work I’m doing—volunteering at Pete’s Place, our local interfaith shelter for the homeless.
I hope you’ll watch the video of the service, including a slide show about the shelter and a duet I sang with the choir director (which for me was a big personal risk, I promise!). Here is the YouTube link. Scroll down on the site to the March 8 sermon:
*What can we learn about ourselves as we struggle with the practicalities of illness and suffering?
*How do we keep going when we’re in shock and numbed out?
*Where can we find inspiration, motivation, laughter and enthusiasm in the face of fear?
*How do we empower ourselves to heal?
Join other women with the same questions and find answers together in a free, three-hour workshop facilitated by breast cancer survivor Hollis Walker and hosted by the Cancer Foundation for New Mexico. (Please note: This workshop focuses on the “inside job,” not medical treatment.)
Empowering Ourselves to Heal is held the second Saturday of each month, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m., and is open to women who have or have had breast or reproductive cancer. Participants need not be in active treatment to attend. The group is offered on a drop-in basis; there is no need to register. Anyone with questions can email Hollis, revhollis[insert “at” symbol here]holliswalker.com, for more information. Workshops include sharing, brief meditations, and creative expression (writing, collage, etc.)
The workshops are held at the Cancer Foundation for New Mexico, 3005 S. St. Francis Drive, Suite 3-B. (The Foundation is in the building between the Cancer Center & Albertsons, next to the Double Dragon restaurant.)
Facilitator Hollis Walker is a breast cancer survivor who is also a board-certified clinical chaplain, ordained interfaith minister, and writer. She works with individuals as a spiritual coach and counselor and facilitates support groups for women. Hollis has lived in Santa Fe since 1987. Her book on her experience with breast cancer, The Booby Blog: A Cancer Chronicle, was published in late 2014.
The Cancer Foundation for New Mexico is a local nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance and support services to cancer patients in Northern New Mexico. Its mission is to help save lives by providing the needed support to enable every Northern New Mexican with cancer to access treatment in Santa Fe.
I was interviewed for an article that appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican September 6 about the wave of same-sex weddings that has occurred since same-sex marriage was legalized in our state last year. Here is the article:
I delivered the following brief sermon at my ordination as an interfaith minister Sept. 25, 2010. I found myself talking to friends recently about the “Divine Sparks,” and decided to share it here with you. The spiral of tiny pots at the top of this page are the pots I refer to in the text. —Hollis
In the beginning—even before God was God—there was only Ayn Sof: Inifinite energy. In order to take form—to begin to Be—Ayn Sof emanated vessels, and into those vessels poured the Divine Light. But alas, some of the vessels couldn’t contain such pure and powerful stuff, and so they shattered. And with them, some sparks of the Divine Light scattered throughout time and space.
This is part of the creation story advanced by the 16th-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria. It’s the foundational legend of kabbalah, and an archetypal myth that has echoes in every faith tradition.
The beauty of this essential world tale is in its solution to sh’virah ha-kelim, the shattering of the vessels: Our job is to search out the lost sparks of Divine Light hidden in people, things and situations. Our mission is no less than tikkun la-shalem, the repair to wholeness, the reconnection of the lost sparks with the greater Divine Light—the sparks out there, but also the sparks in here. We must work as hard at uncovering the divinity within ourselves as we do at raising the sparks in the larger world.
Five years ago, before I’d ever heard of Isaac Luria or considered attending seminary, a friend of my partner’s and mine, Kathy Stanwick, began to die. She was only 56 years old. Not long before, I had taken a ceramics class in micaceous clay, a naturally occurring clay that contains shiny, transparent, glass-like bits of mica. I’d learned to make the most basic of handbuilt clay vessels, called a “pinch pot.” In my struggle to accept Kathy’s death, I decided to use that sparkly dark micaceous clay to make a pinch pot every day for a year. I felt it would help me come to value each day of my life more than I previously had, and in the process honor Kathy as well.
My one-year project took five to complete. But by then I had been studying kabbalah for nearly a year, and saw in my little pots a lovely allegory for Luria’s creation story. Finally, last month, I took the 365, three-inch-tall pots to the home of my former ceramics teacher. We fired my vessels in the traditional way, outdoors, above ground, in a conflagration of pine and cottonwood and cow chips.
Once, years before, I’d watched a very old Pueblo Indian woman fire her ceramics in exactly this manner. While we sat talking and tending her wood-and-dung fire, we heard an occasional distinctive pop!— the sound of one of the vessels breaking. She shrugged. “That one wasn’t good enough,” she said, or, “That one wasn’t ripe.” An air bubble, a minuscule stone, any hidden fault in a pot can cause one of those heartbreaking “pops.” I knew that some of my little pots wouldn’t be able to withstand the heat, any more than the expertly made pots of the Indian woman—any more, in fact, than the very first vessels could contain the Divine Light.
So imagine my surprise when I saw the outcome in the ashes of my fire: Of all 365 pots, only one had broken. It seemed like a miracle. It also seemed symbolic, a poignant reminder of my own brokenness, my own imperfection. When my teacher and I gently rubbed the soot from the surfaces of the still-hot pots, they proved to be a beautiful variety of colors: some pinkish, some orange, some blackened with “fire clouds.” But all of them had one thing in common: They sparkled.
Since that day, I have used the pots in an ongoing photographic project. Each time I handle them, I remember Kathy, and all those I loved who have died in the last five years. I think about Luria’s story of creation, and contemplate what my divine vessels can teach me as I forge my future. Along the way I have come to value one pot above all the rest, and I make sure to give it a place of prominence in the arrangements I create: This is my favorite pot. . . .the broken one, of course.
May you, too, discover the Divine Light hiding in the broken parts of yourselves, and in your lives. May you join in the tikkun, the healing of yourself and our world. And may you ever be engaged in raising the sparks.
Writing for Our Lives is a women’s writing group facilitated by lifelong writer and journalist Hollis Walker that will meet weekly in Santa Fe, 6-8 p.m. Thursdays, beginning Sept. 4, 2014. The group is intended to provide a safe and supportive atmosphere in which women are encouraged to write about their own lives and to share their writing with others. All forms of personal writing are welcomed, including poetry, memoir, essay, fiction, etc. One need not be a published writer or have professional writing experience to participate.
In the group, we will talk about our process of writing and share from what we are currently writing with the group. Writers are asked to make an eight-week commitment to the group in order to foster intimacy and openness. Fee for the eight-week session is $200 and includes a one-hour private feedback session with Hollis to be scheduled during the eight-week period. The group will meet in a private home.
We write because we want to. . .because we need to. . . and ultimately because we must. Sharing our writing unlocks yet another door to our own truths and helps lead us to deeper self-understanding. Join Hollis for eight weeks of motivation in Writing for Our Lives.
For more information, email me at email@example.com.
A Talk at The Celebration
Santa Fe, New Mexico
June 22, 2014
Click here to listen to this talk, if you’d prefer:
The title of my talk is “Empowering Ourselves to Heal.’’ For most of my life I wouldn’t have been caught dead at a talk with a title like that. I was a journalist and therefore skeptical of most of the New Age, self-help, pop culture—especially those as-seen-on-Oprah spiritual gurus and the drivel upon which they made their millions.
Ahem. I’ve changed. In 2008, at age 52, I had the realization that all my life I had been leaning to the left, as I like to say, living in a world defined by rational, left-brained, scientific, concrete, “male” values, if you will. I was my military father’s daughter. And those things made me a really good journalist. But it just wasn’t working for me anymore. I wasn’t happy. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, summed up my problem—a problem many of you have no doubt confronted yourselves, especially if you are over 50. Jung said, “Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”
“Leaning left” had become a lie for me. So I consciously began to lean to the right—into the imagination, the spiritual, the abstract, the subjective, the mythopoetic, the dream world—in the hope that I could bring myself into better balance. Better balance within myself, and with the Universe, with Spirit, with Goddess. I decided to suspend disbelief and skepticism, say YES to everything and say NO to nothing. And I asked the Divine to help out. The exact words I wrote in my journal were: “Please crack open my heart.”
We get what we ask for, as they say. I moved with my then-partner to Berkeley, leaving my beloved Santa Fe and my friends here behind. I thought I was going on an adventure, and I was. I just didn’t know it would be a spiritual adventure. And then all hell broke loose. Here is what happened: I left behind my career as an art journalist and critic; I just couldn’t do it anymore. I met a marvelous, 85-year-old woman named Beth who lived next door to us in Berkeley and was sick and alone, and I began taking care of her. I somehow knew I was in that house to see Beth to the threshold of death, and indeed I was holding her hand when Death came for her. Beth’s wasn’t the only death during this time. Seven people I loved, including Beth and my father, died in fairly rapid succession.
I was swimming in a river of grief and loss. And partly because of that I decided to go to seminary and became an interfaith minister. I wanted to be a medical chaplain, to sit with people as I had with Beth, to serve other people who were sick and/or dying. So after I was ordained, I spent a year in a hospital training as a chaplain There I accompanied many people through illness and some to their deaths. In one particularly memorable week, I sat with seven people as they drew their last breaths. I had by then realized I had an uncanny sense of when my patients were actually going to die; I would just get a “call” in my head, to show up in their rooms. Then, toward the end of my chaplaincy training, my long-term relationship ended—as happens to many people who pursue a spiritual vocation—and I started looking for a job as a chaplain.
Some of you have no doubt heard of the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. It assigns values to stressful life events, good and bad, and based on that calculates the likelihood you’ll have a serious illness within a year. Around this time, while I was looking for a job, I took the test—and I scored 605. A score of just 300 puts you at the highest risk for having a serious illness in the near future. I remember idly wondering what illness I might get, if the test proved true. But I put it out of my mind, like a bad horoscope.
No chaplaincy job presented itself in California and ultimately I moved back to Santa Fe in 2012. I figured at least I had good friends here, gas was cheaper and the traffic was so much better than in the Bay Area. I began an independent practice as a minister, and after several months of looking, I got a halftime job as a hospice chaplain. Just when it seemed like things were beginning to really develop, I awoke one morning with a voice in my head that said, “You have a lump in your left breast.’’ Indeed, something was developing. The Holmes-Rahe test had been right.
Intuitively, I knew it was cancer. So here are the CliffsNotes on my illness: My cancer was caught early. I had a lumpectomy and radiation therapy and was under the weather for most of a year. Good friends kept me afloat emotionally and financially during that time. I had to quit my job as a hospice chaplain; I found I couldn’t comfort those who were dying while I was wondering whether I was dying.
During the time I was sick, I wrote a personal blog I sent to friends and family to keep them updated on my condition, and to keep me sane. I called it “The Booby Blog.” I also kept a special cancer journal. I’m working on a book based on those two things and hope soon it will be published. It’s called The Booby Blog. I hope you will sign up on my email list so I can let you know when it’s out.
I want to share with you some of the things I learned on this spiritual adventure called Cancer.
One of the first things that happened when I was diagnosed with cancer was I realized I was going to die. Maybe sooner than I thought. Despite the many deaths I had witnessed, my own had remained an abstraction until I had cancer. Then, and throughout my illness, the sudden thought that I will die someday would hit me like a fist to the gut, and I would find myself hyperventilating and quaking inside. And every time it happened, after the panic attack subsided, I would think, “If I’m going to die, I don’t want to miss anything, this, the right here, right now.” So I would go outside and look up at the beautiful Santa Fe sky, or look into the eyes of the friend across the table from me, and say a little prayer of gratitude for the grace to experience that moment. The Tibetan Buddhist continually contemplates his own death. It isn’t a morbid practice. Contemplating your own death keeps you rooted in the present moment. So the first big lesson I got was: We’re all going to die. Really. Think about it—and keep thinking about it.
One of the other things I realized was that, despite all of my clinical training, and despite the fact that I knew better intellectually, unconsciously I wanted to believe that there was some outside authority, an expert—perhaps one doctor who was a lot like Dr. Oz, or Dr. Weil, or Marcus Welby, M.D.—who was going to have all the right answers for me. It was a curious kind of fundamentalism—cleaving to the idea of absolutes, Truth with a capital T. In fact I found my medical caregivers to be ordinary people with particular backgrounds that prepared them to give me some advice. But no one person could tell me everything I needed to know to heal, or how to make the decisions that faced me. Should I have a lumpectomy or mastectomy? Should I take the long-term regimen of hormone-repressing drugs or were the side effects so bad I should forego them? Should I do the standard protocol of radiation or not, knowing that the radiation would kill my healthy cells as well as any cancerous ones? Lesson Two: There is no outside absolute authority when it comes to our own healing, whether physical, spiritual or mental. I am the expert on me, and you are the expert on you!
A corollary to that lesson was that I had to take responsibility for my own recovery. As a chaplain, I had heard many a patient blame their doctors for their illness, or for its advancement, or for their impending deaths. It was never true. Blame is just another function of denial. And I didn’t want to be in denial, not anymore. So once I quit pretending that anyone else knew what was best for me or even good for me, once I gave up the “outside authority” idea, I listened to what everyone had to offer, including the doctors, and did what felt right for me, in my guts. It was terrifying. One of the things I decided was I was not going to do a drug protocol that had the potential for severe side effects. When I told a nurse about my decision, she said to me, “Well, you’d better think about how you’ll feel if you have a recurrence.” So I thought about it. I decided that if I had a recurrence, there would be no way to tell whether it had anything to do with not taking the drugs. There is no simple cause-and-effect with cancer, or most illnesses or even personal crises. Life is much more complicated than that. I decided I could live with my decision, even if I died. I ignored that nurse and anyone else who wagged their finger at me and insisted I do what they recommended. Science supports this notion of DIY recovery, Do-It-Yourself Recovery. Numerous studies have shown that patients who are described as “feisty” or as having a “fighting spirit” and being “uncooperative” live longer than those who are considered “good” and “compliant” patients. That’s Lesson Three: Take responsibility for your own care—body, mind and spirit. Assert yourself!
Another thing that came up for me was that I suddenly recognized I was doing what I also had seen so many patients try to do: Trying to control things. With a life that seemed out of control, a life being run by some invisible and frightening power called Cancer, I took control of everything I could. What did that look like? I researched cancer on the Internet. I read books on cancer. I went to see every alternative practitioner I could afford: a hypnotherapist, an acupuncturist, an alternative M.D., a nutritionist. I went to yoga, I prayed, I meditated. As soon as possible after my surgery, I started walking, and then running, again. I took dozens of supplements. I quit eating dairy and soy and gluten and any processed food at all. And then I remembered James Fixx, the man who popularized running through his 1970s book, The Complete Runner. James Fixx ran 10 miles a day and did other strenuous exercise daily, and at age 52, he dropped dead of heart disease. There are no guarantees. I had been practicing a form of denial, of superstition, a secret belief that said, “If I just do all the `right’ things, then my cancer will be cured and it won’t come back.” Yet my smarter self kept whispering, “Yeah, but there are no guarantees.” Whether I allow myself one tiny slice of flourless chocolate cake a month or binge on Ding-Dongs every day, my cancer might come back. Lesson Four: We have no control over anything, and certainly not over illness; control is an illusion.
So far, this talk is pretty depressing, right? We’re all going to die, no one is coming to the rescue, and it’s all out of control! But they all led to the next lesson I got.
How many times have we all heard the cliche, “Let go and let God”? I’ve heard it so many times myself I want to smack anyone who utters it. Sometimes it sounds too much like giving up. Yet there is some truth hidden in that phrase. Resistance to what was happening was causing me so much pain that I finally started to consciously practice surrender, every single day, to whatever happened that day. For me, it was more of a Buddhist thing than a theistic notion. Instead of trying to change my life, I just kept surrendering to the moment, to the circumstances of the day. It felt better than resisting. Did I do this perfectly? Of course not. But I tried to consciously make that mental shift, and I integrated it into my regular spiritual practice. That’s Lesson Five: Just surrender, whatever that means to you.
One of the things I found most difficult about being sick was that I had to let other people help me. Sometimes I had to ask for their help. My ego was very attached to being a helper rather than a helpee. Now that the tables were turned, I felt weak and useless in many ways. It was hard enough letting others see my vulnerability, but it was most shocking for me to see myself as vulnerable. Talk about humbling. My ego bubble was burst. Nora Gallagher is the author of a wonderful book about illness and spirituality called Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic. She says that, “It is the [natural] order of things to be vulnerable. The disorder is imagining we are not.” Through having cancer, I saw that we are all in the same leaking boat. We have to take turns bailing. And I have found that being vulnerable, even revelatory, about myself, has the unexpected benefit of fostering intimacy, drawing me closer to my boatmates. That’s Lesson Six: Accept vulnerability; let others help you—and not just when you’re sick or in crisis.
The psychotherapist Lawrence LeShan wrote a book called Cancer as a Turning Point about his research with people who had “terminal” cancer. He discovered that people who have life-threatening cancer often have abandoned important dreams, or never allowed themselves to fully explore their creativity. Likewise, he notes that the poet W. H. Auden called cancer “a foiled creative fire.” LeShan showed that people who had cancer and began to pursue their creativity—either by returning to an abandoned dream or coming up with some new passion—often got better, sometimes were cured, sometimes extended their lives, and at the very least, found joy again, however long they lived.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had planned to start and facilitate a women’s support group. It was supposed to begin meeting the week my surgery was scheduled. I considered cancelling the group, since I was uncertain about my condition in the coming months, but that little voice in my head said not to, so I postponed our first meeting for a week after my surgery. I called it Isis Group, Isis being the great healer of ancient Egyptian mythology, of course. As it turned out, the women who joined the group—the women I thought I was going to help—kept me sane and fed my imagination. That group was and is a creative force for me; it is still meeting, a year and a half later. I also sort of miraculously lost my fear about putting some of my most personal writing out there for others to see, hence The Booby Blog. So this is Lesson Seven: Healing of all kinds is attainable through the pursuit of creativity. Find and do something you love.
These are the lessons I learned that I believe empowered me to heal myself, and that can help you do the same. But some of you may be thinking, where is God, where is the spiritual, in all of this? I believe that God or Goddess, the Divine Power, the Infinite, whatever you want to call it, was with me every step of the way. The voice that told me I had a lump in my breast. . . the intuition that sent me to the bedside of my patients when they were dying. . .the synchronicity of moving into a house next door to someone who needed me as much as I needed her. . .the voice that told me not to cancel the Isis Group. The Divine was there, every step of the way. Through cancer and all the other changes that happened during this period of my life, my faith deepened. I became more certain of the existence of God than ever before. And I became less certain of who, and what, God is. It is an uncertainty I can now embrace.
Thank you for letting me share part of my journey with you. As always, take what you can use and leave the rest. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace. And may we all empower ourselves to heal.