A Skeptical Realist

Beltane and the Recovery Moon

32 degrees this morning on Shadow Mountain, raining. Fog grays out Black Mountain. So far our usual summertime foe, wildfire, looks less formidable. At least for this year.

Office, Edward Hopper, American realist

And, yes, if you, reader of Ancientrails, are tired of the medical overcast here, so am I. However.

As Kate and I talked yesterday, I told her about my new friend David, who has a prostate cancer situation more dire than mine. His has metastasized. He said, “I’m good at compartmentalization.” I’m not. Don’t want to be.

I’m a realist. Neither optimist nor pessimist. I want to know what is. There’s good evidence in psychological studies of depression that realists end up depressed more than optimists. That optimists are happier than realists or pessimists. May be. Still can’t look away.

That’s what you’re reading here. My attempt to see. Inside and out. And, even though I learned from Cosmos and Psyche that skepticism is a tool, not a lifeway, surprise; it’s a tool I’ve used so long that I can’t put it back in the toolbox, hang it on its little outline on the pegboard of my mind. Skepticism and realism have never made me the life of the party. Debbie Downer might be more apt.

Yet some deep commitment to honesty, learned I’m not sure where, keeps me realist and skeptic. I don’t like being manipulated, by others, by institutions, by myself. So I long ago chose to deal with the psychological fall out of the examined life, a fair exchange in my world. Not always pleasant, but cleaner. Candid.

Tough Place

Beltane and the Recovery Moon

I’m in a tough place. Tired out. Psychically weary. Physically weary. Workouts stalled due to schedules. Writing non-existent except for this blog. Habit. Of very long standing. No hiking. Watching a lot of TV, dulling the mind, the heart. On purpose.

Of course, as we enter the ninth month after Kate’s bleed, with all that has entailed, and considering flu and pneumonia for February and March, it’s not a surprise. Add the I’m Back! from prostate cancer, the imaging difficulties, the appointment today, and I’m pushed over the line sweet Jesus.

Symptoms: staring blankly, weariness, heaviness in the soul, irritability, lack of motivation. I don’t know what to do with my life, I said to Kate yesterday. Not sure what I meant, though it felt true at the time. In 2015, during the diagnostic runup to the prostate surgery, I talked about losing all sense of the future. My mind just wouldn’t go there. Not the, oh, I’m in the moment sort of thing, but a symptom of possible lost hope. This is probably the same. Cancer eats away not only at the body but at time, too. At our sense of ourselves as ongoing.

I have novels to edit. Ancientrails, the printed edition, to organize and edit. Paintings to paint. Grandkids to see. Domestic chores to get done. Colorado to see with Kate. Yes. All true. But right now I don’t have a sense of urgency with them, they don’t call to me. Sit down. Pen in hand. Start whacking out paragraphs. Or, stand up. The moon and the sun, the lesser light and the greater light. What colors should I use? What shape? Where should they go on the painting?

Will pass. May last through my treatment, however long that takes.

Cracks Filled With Gold

Beltane and the Recovery Moon

Comment and response:

Tom and Mark at the Boulder Tajikistani Tea House

Tom Crane said:

It seems we are all becoming wabi sabi humans. Or Velveteen rabbits. The same perhaps. Deepening the love for ourselves and others, wearing the roadmaps of our lives for others to see while we sort through the inner souvenirs, not so visible.

Love and blessings, Charles.

Charles says: June 4, 2019 at 10:37 am (Edit)

I agree. Third phase life, done well, could also be called the Velveteen Rabbit phase. When we become real to ourselves. The cracks in our lives mended with gold, their existence treasured. Even the impermanence of life becomes beautiful, a frame for the whole. Our imperfections, flaws, mistakes as crucial and necessary as our achievements. We see that now.

St. Elsewhere

Beltane and the Recovery Moon

Kate’s going to be in the hospital one more day. They want to be sure the j-tube is working, no leaks. A gastric function test today with contrast. Like making sure all the plumbing is in order after sealing the wall. Not sure what they’ll do if they find a leak.

Today it feels like I woke up in a Truman Show simulacrum, one focused on medicine, a Grey’s Anatomy in which Kate and I are a plot thread about medical issues affecting the geriatric demographic. Maybe I’ll drive out to Littleton Adventist this morning and someone there will tear a hole in the screen separating us from the cameras and crew.

Having Kate back in the hospital has flashed forward the bleed and its long aftermath, the second bleed, the pneumothorax. On the first day she’s gone my reaction is to be self-indulgent. Eat poorly and watch a lot of TV. Yesterday was hot dogs, ice cream and several sessions of Big Mouth, a Netflix cartoon about hormonal middle-schoolers. It’s surprisingly good, recommended by Ruth. Not sure why I have this reaction, marking her absence surely, but why self-indulgence?

Tom Crane’s guy.

I suppose those are denial strategies. Eat and forget. Watch and forget. Suppress. Repress. Good thing I have this bandage stripping habit. Wouldn’t want to get stuck. My inclination these days, these third phase days, is to be more forgiving of myself. As somebody said, if your compassion does not include yourself, you are not yet (something): fully compassionate, enlightened, realistic? Ah. Looked it up. It is incomplete.

Death and its meanings

Beltane and the Cancer Moon

Vanitas

Under the Cancer Moon I’ve wrestled with the news of cancer returning. Death and its meanings. At the Journal workshop I wrote in one exercise, death has found me. I still feel that way, that this is a mortality signal with little ambiguity.

Even so, I’m feeling upbeat, happy right now. Why? CT scan showed negative for metastases. So did the bone scan. That means the reemergence has happened in the prostate fossa. Localized. An easier place to treat.

Ozymandias, Shelley

Death may in fact have found me, but prostate cancer may not be its agent. The word cure comes back into the vocabulary with these findings. If the radiation is successful, I’ll be a 72 year old guy with no cancer. Wow.

This will take a while to incorporate.

Simmer Down, Now

Most of the time, I’m here

Cindy called shortly after I wrote the post below. Cindy was the young woman I talked to at the New West Physician’s medical authorization department. That was on the telephone day, Wednesday.

Your CT’s were approved. She was pleased, I could tell. She had helped me. I felt cheated, though. Have they been scheduled, she asked. Yes, I said, my teeth together, they were scheduled for today. And felt bad. Thanks, Cindy, I appreciate your help. You’re welcome, have a great rest of your day.

It’s a fine line between aggression and assertiveness, a line I cross often, too often. Here’s a paragraph from Pema Chodron that’s given me a new tool for helping stay on my side of the line:

Staying in the Middle
As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrül teaches the nonviolent practice of simmering. He says that rather than “boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup,” we simmer in it. We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in. Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle between the two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false. This is the journey of developing a kindhearted and courageous tolerance for our pain. Simmering is a way of gaining inner strength. It helps us develop trust in ourselves—trust that we can experience the edginess, the groundlessness, the fundamental uncertainty of life and work with our mind, without acting in ways that are harmful to ourselves or others. Pema Chodron.

A Cloud of Unknowing

Dante Luca Signorelli (Own-work-Georges-Jansoone-JoJan-Taken-on-30-April-2008)

Another big medical week. But they all seem to be right now. Minor: had my teeth cleaned yesterday. “Your teeth are so clean.” Hygienist. So one part of my body’s in good shape.

Kate and I visit Ed Smith today. He’s the surgeon who will, we’ve been hoping for several months now, implant the j-tube. The pulmonologist has cleared her, the last remaining hurdle. I’m expecting (hoping?) that we will schedule a date.

On Thursday I have the standard of care imaging studies for prostate cancer reemergence, a ct and an mri. The axumin scan is a pet-scan. In a followup visit to Dr. Gilroy, the radiation oncologist, we’ll see what these tests have to say and revisit the axumin scan if it seems like it would increase the accuracy and efficacy of treatment.

William Blake

Each step on this journey makes things a bit more real. A bit more sphincter tightening. Right now, I have no idea where I am, except that I’m in a place I’d rather not be. No diagnosis except a rising PSA. No treatment plan. Just the knowledge that somewhere in my body are cells working against my survival.

Death Hendrick Andriessen 1607–1655

It’s a strange place to be, ethereal, filled with fantasy. They’ll find distant metastases and I’m doomed. They’ll find a small, localized tumor, zap it with a Buck Roger’s ray gun. I return to a new life free of cancer. The disease is slow, but not fully treatable. I’ll have to live for years with an invader slowly gaining more and more territory. A losing game of go.

I’m sleeping well, not overly distracted or anxious. Yet this is a moment of existential angst, the sort of moment that defines existential angst. Dante helps me see it more clearly. Here are the famous first lines from Canto One, modified just a bit.

Two thirds through the journey of my life
  I find myself within a forest dark,
  For the straightforward pathway has been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
  What is this forest savage, rough, and stern,
  Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more...

But, since it came to good, I will recount all that happened there.” This is v. 4 of the Canto and my hope. We’ll see.

Get Your Hands Dirty

Just to show you I’m not only about death and cancer. Here’s a response I wrote to Bill Schmidt after reading this article, “Modernity, Faith, and Martin Buber,” from the New Yorker. He passed it along from his friend Nancy.

Bill, it took me a while, but I did get around to the Buber article yesterday. Interesting. I’d not read a synopsis like this before.

He was a contemporary of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and the only rabbi excommunicated by the Orthodox rabbinate in the U.S. My kinda guy.

Martin Buber


I would put Buber, Dewey, Kaplan, and Emerson together. They all questioned received wisdom, hankered to get below the surface of thought to find the substrata. Dewey (and William James) as a pragmatist might be the outlier here, but the pragmatists were a unique American contribution to Western philosophy and as such took issue with the philosophical tradition they had been given from European thinkers. Buber, of course, is the only one of the three that is not an American, but he took Jewish thought in a direction I think is very congenial with Kaplan.

In a quick search I couldn’t find any evidence that Kaplan used Buber’s work, but their mutual insistence on a human centered approach to religion, perhaps even in Buber a human/pagan approach: “When something does emerge from among things, something living, and becomes a being for me… It is for me nothing but You!” and on Judaism’s culture, as opposed to dogma, makes them simpatico. “Buber exhorted his listeners…not to abandon their Judaism but to reinvent it.” Reconstruct it.

This is congruent, too, with Emerson who wanted a book of revelation to us, not the dry bones of revelation to them. Emerson I know had a lot of Taoist influence, don’t know about Buber.

Mordecai Kaplan

We might find a distinctly American twist on religious sensibility by looking at all of these thinkers, even though Buber was German. I’d say my project about reimagining or reinventing faith is in this tradition. That tradition seems to say, take nothing from books as true. Test their ideas against reality, test them against reality at its deepest in your Self and at its broadest in the world beyond the Self. Be ready for the sacred to surprise you in the petals of a flower, the flow of an avalanche, the innocence of a puppy. Find the divine within your Self and bow to the divine within the other, be it rock, animal, fungus, or human.

The gooseberries and me

In my work I’ve found the soil, the power of plants, perfect examples. When we consider our reliance on the first six inches of top soil, on the mystery of photosynthesis, on the divine miracle that is life whether green or furry or pink or barked, then, we don’t need to go to Luke or the Torah. My scripture and its most profound secrets exist in the wonder of rootlets reaching into the dark for the nutrients held for them in living soil.

Are you going to be o.k.?

Mortality signals. Coming through loud and strong. A frisson of the world without me. “Are you going to be ok,” Kate asked, “Psychologically?” “Yeah, I think so. I’ll tell you if I’m not.”

Yamantaka

Hard to avoid running the recent news all the way out to the literal end. (see post below) I’m neither a pessimist nor an optimist, I’m a realist. The indicators are not good. But. At this point that’s all they are. Indicators. As Kate also said, “We need more data.” Yes, an axumin scan would have helped, but a ct and an mri will get us started.

Yamantaka and I have been friends for a long time now. I’ve imagined my death, my corpse. Meditated on it. When my mind insists on following the bread crumbs, I let it. I end up the same place Yamantaka has taken me. The same place we all come to. The question isn’t whether, but when.

Yes, this is morbid. And, yes, even if all the signs are negative, nothing’s happening soon. But I can’t be other than where I am. Right now, on this chilly May Saturday, I’m still absorbing.

I do feel I’ll be ok. Psychologically. Which doesn’t mean I won’t be scared. The unknown is the landscape between here and death. Will treatments be able to slow down the cancer? Is there still a chance for a cure? Unknown.

There a couple of mantras I’ve said over and over for quite a while. Live until you die. I intend to do that. Live in the present. I’m doing that except for those pesky moments when the blood hound of logic starts baying at the trail. I still have books to write, paintings to finish, friends and family. Dogs. Those will not change. Books to read. Places to go. Mountains and nearby states to explore.

On that last. I will see the National Gallery of Art in Taipei. This is the museum which contains the Qing emperors collection, all the best of Chinese art over its long history. Chiang Kai-Shek gathered the collection and took it with him to Taiwan after a losing fight against Mao and the Red Army.

Here is a large copy of one piece I most want to see:

Fan Kuan, Travelers with Mountains and Streams, Song Dynasty

Not yet

Beltane                                                                             Cancer Moon

20190510_064922

from my computer, this morning

5 or so inches of snow over the night before and yesterday. Looks like winter again here. Solar panels covered. Black Mountain hidden in the clouds. The drive down the hill yesterday took some skill. Slick spots, long runs snow and ice covered while going down. Wouldn’t want to have to do that everyday for work. On occasion it’s interesting, different. Our workshop leader, Joanne, lives in Fresno where it gets hot, and in Hawai’i, where it never gets cold. This weather is not to her liking.

This is the last day of the workshop. Now considering how to continue this work on my own. Each other time, three before this one, I’ve come back and not continued the journal. This time it feels like I finally understand the method enough to do it unguided, or at least with the help of Progoff’s main book, At a Journal Workshop. The week long retreats have been sufficient for me to gain new insights, position myself in my life at the moment, and chart out a path forward. That’s why I’ve come to back to this experience.

One thing I’ve not touched on yet in this new journal is reading. I want to read more, more methodically. This desire comes over me from time to time, right now it’s coming in strength. I read a lot anyhow, you know that, but I want to take specific time for more difficult reading. Gotta figure out how to work that in.

There is, too, some overlap between ancientrails and the intensive journal. Sometimes they’re covering the same or similar ground. Will have to work out the relationship between them.

20190506_084930It’s a bit strange to be at May 10 and have the temperature at 24, snow covering the driveway, the roofs, the walkways. In Minnesota the safe time for planting was typically May 15. Don’t think it would work here, at least not every year. We warm back up next week. For now, though. Winter wonderland. Like, I wonder why it’s still winter?

Next week will test the equanimity. Monday am. Kate’s appointment with Gupta. Lung disease diagnosis and fitness for j-tube surgery. Later in the day, her new crowns. Tuesday, axumin scan to determine the extent and location of my cancer. Wednesday, a visit with my ophthalmologist. Retinal photography. Thursday, mussar. Friday, all-season tires and dye into the air conditioning system. A visit to Anova Cancer care for a treatment plan. A jump shift from this quiet week.

One important thing the journal workshop has underlined for me is that I’m not ready to die. I have family I want to care for, see grow up, grow older. Friends I want to know better. I have books to write. Places to visit. Deep work still ahead of me. This is not new, of course, and the journal workshop hasn’t made me aware of it, no. But, it has put me in touch with the gestalt of these things and my desire to keep at them all. The feeling level.

Death will come, but as I heard someone else say, let it be tomorrow.