Parshah

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

definitely not me

Gonna do a bagel table in September. That means I lead a discussion on the Parshah for that week, Ki Teitzei. Parshah are much longer than lectionary selections in Christian churches. Where a Christian lectionary might identify a few verses of one chapter, parshah have multiple chapters in them. Ki Teitzei runs from Deuteronomy 21:10 to 25:19.

I agreed to this a couple of months ago, planning to focus on it after the radiation was done. Well…

David Jordani, Simchat Torah at CBE

Sorta intimidated. Steve, a CBE member who is also doing some of the bagel tables, reported he’s been studying Torah with Rabbi Zwerin and other Rabbis for over 25 years. I’ve been studying Torah for at most 3 years and not in any dedicated way. (caveat: that statement depends on seeing torah as the first five books of the Tanakh. Rabbi Jamie sees the purpose of torah as learning how to be and how to be in the world. I would say becoming, but that’s for another time. In that sense I’ve been studying torah my whole life.)

What did I imagine I could offer? Any quick study of essays and commentaries will leave me short of knowledge, not least because I don’t know Hebrew. Realized mimicking a Rabbi or an educated lay person was not only not possible, but not a good idea either. Why try to be who I’m not?

Gonna read the essays and the commentaries anyhow, but I’m gonna take a different tact. A couple of different tacts. First, I’m going to own my relative ignorance. Relative in that I have studied the Torah as part of biblical literature in Sem.

What I want to do is draw from those who come how they perceive the torah and how they perceive its use in Jewish congregations and in their personal lives. I’ll talk first about the very different way I would look at it from within a Christian hermeneutic. Then, we’ll discuss their perceptions of torah as a whole, then their perspectives on the particular content of this parshah. I’m going to try to communicate Rabbi Jamie’s idea of torah, too, because it makes a lot of sense to me.

In fact, I may introduce a bit of Emerson to them, that introduction to Nature I’m so fond of.

Yamantaka. Yes.

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

wow. Beano and a Woolly Mammoth!

Still in the weekend. First day with no radiation is tomorrow. And tomorrow, and tomorrow. Not fully sunk in yet. Except for putting away the Miralax, the Beano, the Renew Life. Back to regular bowel life in a week or so. Yeah! Spent Friday night and Saturday eating forbidden foods like cucumbers, carrots, ice cream, fried falafel. Bring on the gas.

Kate got up yesterday, wasn’t feeling well. I can tell quickly. She went back to bed. Sometime around noon she realized she’d not taken her morning meds. Oh, she said. Turns out they’re really important. A better afternoon.

It’s been cooler here the last three days. Nice sleeping. Overcast this morning. What my Aunt Roberta would have called a dull, gray day. She often opened letters with that line. A variation, I think, on: it was a dark and stormy night. In this usually sunny state overcast is an oddity.

Sent out notes about the end of radiation. Receiving messages back. The support of such a wide group of folks has given me a safety net for those times when the weight bore down. Thanks to you all. You know who you are. Especially to Kate who has role modeled a phlegmatic response to medical issues. Thanks, sweetheart.

More convinced than ever that resilience is key to the third phase. By definition we’re going to hit tough, scary bumps in the road at our age. How we respond will determine how miserable they make us.

In my case I’m pretty sure it’s acceptance of death that has undergirded me. Got into accepting my own death thanks to the Yamantaka Mandala that hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Himalayan gallery. He is not, as often identified, the Tibetan Buddhist God of Death. He’s the god of conquering your own death. Contemplate yourself as a corpse. Feel what it will be like for your loved ones when you die. Practice being calm in dire physical situations. Whatever makes you really feel your absence from this world.

If death is not scary, then a potentially terminal disease isn’t either. What Yamantaka taught me has allowed me to go through this whole process with little anxiety. It allowed me to be present for conversations about what to do, for the treatments, and for the possibility of failure. It also helped me accept support and not push it away.

Worth considering for all of us in the third phase, I believe. Second phase, too, but definitely now as we live into the last phase of life.

And, done

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

Conductors by street car number 35 – Pensacola, Florida.

35 of 35. 350 minutes of photons. All in. Fini.

Patty gave me a high five. Nicky gave me a medium blue Anova pull-over shirt. The Dixieland Jazz for the final ten was inspired. Felt like I was in the Quarter, beignet and chicory coffee in hand, water condensing on the glass at the Cafe du Monde.

In my discharge session I asked Dr. Gilroy again what he thought my chances were for a cure. “Seventy-five to eighty percent. I’d say ninety but you were in a high risk group. Really good odds.”

Also asked him how long he thought I needed to be on the Lupron, “Three to six months.” He repeated that in a note of our meeting. That’s great news for me because it means as soon as 7 months from now I could get a PSA that would prove definitive. Also would mean just one more Lupron injection. Oddly, if I read my Anova bill yesterday, which said we owed $139, the Lupron injections, at $189, are more expensive than the whole series of radiation treatment.

Before insurance coverage, the raw price from Anova for 35 sessions plus setup was $93,300. Yes, sir. The gasp was similar to the one I gave the nice lady at the Jefferson County license plate window. “$585 for your new plates.” What! “Yes,” she said, “this is the worst part of my job. Telling folks the cost.”

Kate asked me how I felt as we drove away. At that moment, not much. I still had to drive home. “Relieved that it’s over. Happy I won’t have to make the drive anymore. Not giddy, definitely not.” We agreed we felt cautiously optimistic.

Over the course of Kate’s long ordeal I got a real peak behind the curtain of medicine. Not that I hadn’t had one before with Kate, but this time I saw in action the high-wire act that medicine is. Doctors go with the best data possible. Sometimes that data’s not very good. Kate’s upper bowel resection had to be done to stop the bleeding, but the imaging studies done before surgery were inconclusive about the actual site of the bleed. Worked. Data and experience.

In my case the radiation treatment involved two scans that showed nothing, no mets. This meant that my rising PSA was most likely the result of a local recurrence, one confined to the prostate fossa, the area where my prostate used to be. Note the most likely. The radiation itself proceeds with care and precision, but in a black box. The radiation goes in, but did it do anything? Can’t know till the Lupron’s not on board anymore.

And then, there was one

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

Awake at 3 this morning. Now that’s roughly 7 hours of sleep from my 8 pm bedtime, but still earlier than I’m used to. Same feelings as the last day of finals. Or, the day of a big event like a wedding or graduation. A bit wired, something momentous is about to happen in my world.

Was not expecting to have this much of a feeling response to the end of radiation, or, at least not this kind. Relief, yes. A sense of completion, yes. But, graduation? Which is the closest analogy. No. Why would I have an anticipatory feeling like that? I’ve not accomplished something personally. I got cancer. Took my treatment options and have followed one of them out to the end.

Patty asked me what I was going to do to celebrate? Go to the Black Hat Cattle Company, I said. When I said it, it felt inadequate, but it’s what I’ve got right now. I’ve not had much red meat over the last seven weeks, much less than usual, so I’ve got a hankering for steak. Maybe something else will occur to me.

Yesterday afternoon during my nap I had a hotflash that woke me up out of a sound sleep. It was the most intense so far. I’ve had milder ones, prickly heat on the scalp, face, back of the neck. This one left me tired afterward. Kate said, oh yes, that’s part of it.

As the radiation winds down, it seems that the Lupron is choosing to wind up. Oh, joy.

Two

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

And then there were two. Just two more fractions, that’s all. With July 4th and the Bedbug incidents this is the 8th week since I started radiation on June 17th. 35 fractions in all. 7000 cGy.

Gonna do Renaissance music again today, but I’ll shift to Dixieland for the 35th. Something up beat and celebratory. Due to scheduling changes I’ll do my last fraction at 9:40 am on Friday. After that I’ll have a final meeting with Dr. Gilroy.

Kate’s coming along. We’ll go up to Maria’s and pick up some empanadas. This Maria’s is straight up I-25 from Lone Tree, easy to access. Originally planned to go to PappaDeuxs, a steak house up in the same area, but that was when my treatment was at 1:20 pm. With the shift we’ll head back home after the empanadas.

Black Hat Cattle Company, Kittredge

Tomorrow night we’re going to the Black Hat Cattle Company where I intend to order a big steak, rare. Probably tenderloin. I will be very happy not to have to watch my diet anymore. By that I mean restricting gas producing foods, taking Beano and Renew Life. Taking Miralax every night. Back to Metamucil, a kinder, gentler source of fiber.

I will also be happy to let my bladder announce its own needs, rather than fill it to 100 ml or above each morning at just the right time for my treatment.

The staff at Anova, each one I’ve met and I’ve met them all except the medical physicist and the billing person, have been kind and thoughtful, careful in their work. Glad I chose to use them.

There’s so much to be grateful for. And, I am grateful for all of it: CBE meals, the care at Anova, friends and family who’ve reached out, helped. Whether the radiation succeeds or not, I feel good about having done it.

Beyond Friday I move into a different phase. The Lupron inflected phase. I have begun getting mild hot flashes. Mostly a feeling of heat in my head, a prickly sudden flush that soon recedes.

Kate and I will have to redefine our lives, recalibrate. A CBE friend, Judy, who’s still on chemo for ovarian cancer, said recently, “Cancer uncomplicated my life. I had to focus on healing. Now that I’m doing better I’m trying to figure out how to complicate my life again.”

Made me think. I don’t want to complicate my life again. Without pushing for a redefinition yet I do see some outlines: Kate and I do more together. Kate returns to sewing. I continue to write and market my work. I continue to paint, to workout. That’s continuity. I also want to read a lot more. Hike more. We’ll see.

After a week of rest from the radiation and as my energy returns things will come into clearer focus.

Thirty Two

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

Number 32 by Jackson Pollock

32 fractions. 3 left! No music yesterday. Not sure why. But. No bedbugs either. I watched the CyberKnife more this time. Wondered about how it worked. Where’s the linear acclerator? What’s in the head and beak part and what does it do? Amazed at the engineering that gets fine movement from such an odd design. Also stared at the wooden ceiling for a bit. Fast.

Afterward I went to Nothing Bundt Cakes, a franchise using the Nordicware bundt cake pan. Bought a cake and 12 buntdtini’s (yes, that’s the actual term. clerk and I had a laugh over it. Like vente, eh? Exactly. Exactly like that.) for the crew at Anova. Gratitude for their kindness and their care.

Went from there, across Quebec, to an Einstein Bagel’s. Got a dozen plus some shmear and lox. Sesame seed and plain.

Realized after that I’d made a brief return to Minnesotaland. When I was a docent at the MIA, one of the women in my class, Linda Jefferies, was a Nordicware heir. Her father or grandfather invented the bundt cake pan.

She told me a story about folks from the Smithsonian coming with white gloves into her attic. They were looking for objects and documents to use in an exhibit about Nordicware and the bundt pan. The link is to Nordicware company records at the Smithsonian.

Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bagels merged while I was still in Minnesota. I frequented a Caribou Coffee in Andover, buying iced coffee for trips into the MIA.

Less tired yesterday. Not sure why. Maybe nearing the end has energized me. Probably it. Still lacking motivation, still fatigued, but not as much yesterday.

Ken from CBE brought pumpkin/turkey chili. Tasty. A good salad, too. We don’t know Ken. That’s the work of the Mitzvah committee.

And, four to go

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

The Concert, Gerard van Honthorst

Finishing the fractions to renaissance music. It conjures up visions of castles, balls, courtly life. A world far removed from photons and linear accelerators. No CyberKnifes in the late middle ages. Just a lot of great art, city states. Kim, therapist Kim, says it reminds her she wants to go to the Renaissance Festival. That, too.

Thirty-first fraction yesterday, 4 to go. Gut problems reduced. Much less gas. Nicky measured my bladder. Each day I get a small amount of gel rubbed on my tummy, an ultrasound probe goes on the gel. Yesterday. “100.” Nicky said. That’s ml of urine, btw. 100 is the magic number. Anything above it and the treatment can go ahead. Unless gas. The things we do for a cure.

Michelle and David brought fish, salad, rice, vegetables, and lemon cake on Sunday. CBE folks. When SeoAh was here, we ran into Michelle at Walmart. This was January. Her husband, David, had a month old diagnosis of prostate cancer, with metastases. I told her about my experience in 2015.

Later, when my new diagnosis came, I talked to her at mussar. David and I got together for coffee at the Muddy Buck in Evergreen. As it happened, that was the Friday I saw Dr. Gilroy to discuss treatments. David mentioned Lupron to me in the morning; I had it prescribed for me in the afternoon. David, too, had radiation, though 20 sessions rather than 35.

The Muddy Buck, Evergreen

He’s had side effects from the Lupron. Memory loss, hot flashes at night. Since he had mets, they couldn’t do a radical prostatectomy. Too much chance that would spread the cancer rather than eliminate it. In his case they’re trying to suppress all the testosterone, so he’s getting a second medication that takes care of testosterone produced in places you don’t suspect, like the adrenal gland.

It was good to talk with him again. A mini support group. I’ve got lots of support, but David is the only one who also has prostate cancer.

The last week of treatment, one drive down, four to go.

Awe, Gratitude, Acceptance

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

Awe and gratitude. Then, acceptance. Awe sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes the Otherworld always with us but so often made invisible by habit of thought, by custom, by hurry, by dullness. Gratitude blossoms on its own when we see the Otherworld of which we are a part. Constant gratitude embeds us in the mystical, sacred world that awe presents to us.

Once we know the Otherworld for what it is, there even if today we are blind and deaf, gratitude becomes our way. We then accept our embeddedness in it. We are not other, rather we are part of this pulsing, dynamic whole. Acceptance and gratitude are not only for the wonderful, the special, the good. Acceptance and gratitude have to include things like cancer, divorce, death, decay for they are part of the sacred world, too.

What? Grateful for cancer? Why not? It’s challenged me to rethink my life, to carve out what’s important from the usual block of cultural granite given at birth and accreted over the years. The experience has reaffirmed cherished views, too. My friends do care. My family does love me. The medical system has many people who care a lot, who know a lot, who can help. (OK. There was bad Amanda and the axumin scan business, but, hey!)

How can I not be awed at the living marvel of cancer. It adapts, changes, strives for immortality. It feeds and grows. Its reach is wide, stretching across many species. It’s no worse an actor than heart disease or old age or stroke. It is the Big C, yes; but, it’s role in the Great Wheel turning of our lives is no different from any agent of decay or decomposition.

Am I ok with its plans for my body right now? No. Not even a little. In order to counter it though I first have to accept it. Not deny it. Not turn in fear or arrogance. Cancer’s reality is awesome, even has that yirah tinge of fear attached. I’m grateful I found it in me, learned about it and have means to halt or stop its progress.

Accepting it gives me power. Strength. When I accept it, I say that it is not the final word for my health, my worth, my life. Even if it proves fatal, it will not have determined my life.

Final Week

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

The road so far

The final week. 5 more fractions. How many photons, I wonder, in a fraction? How much light does it take to banish the darkness of cancer?

Giddy? Yes, getting there. No more two hour trips to Lone Tree each weekday. No more CyberKnife clicking and clacking, moving, shifting, always pointing at my abdomen. Hopeful? Yes. The weirdness of hope here being how long it will take to know whether the radiation did kill the cancer.

Anxious? A bit. From the first lab report showing my PSA had begun to rise to June 17th, the beginning of my treatment, until now, I’ve moved in a progression. More labs. Imaging scans. Treatment options. Start radiation. I was doing something active. The “take arms against a sea of troubles” approach. At the end of this week I’ll not have the useful metric of trips to Lone Tree. Each trip was a stand against this inner enemy.

Since June 17th

After will be the Lupron. And waiting. Another injection on October 1. Lab tests every few months. Waiting for the end of ADT therapy. (Androgen Deprivation Therapy) Then wait three more months. A PSA then will probably show whether the radiation worked.

Waiting means moving into the wu wei of cancer. Living with an inner mystery. Flowing with it, letting it become whatever it will be.

Oh, yes. My answers came.

Lughnasa and the Moon of the First Harvest

A friend asked me: “(As a result of facing death) have you been informed by any wider sense of the simple joy of being?  Or any other description of the immediate worth of being?”

Mortality signals. They’ve been in my life since toddlerhood. Polio in 1949. Mom died in 1964. Lost all hearing in my left ear suddenly at 38. MRI for brain tumor as a result. High blood pressure. Took me years to come out from under mom’s death. An alcoholic haze lasting until my late 20’s.

Even after I emerged from my grieving sober, there was still rage, still self-loathing, still so much overburden. Took another decade of Jungian therapy. Then, finally, I met Kate.

She was my chance to live a different life, one unhooked from the patterns and history, or, at least, unhooked from their power over me. We made a pact to support each others creativity, each others deepest hopes. And, we have done that.

We’ve raised two boys into men. We went as close to Mother Earth as we could. Years of soil amendments, planting seeds. Corms. Tubers. Bulbs. Slips. Trees. Shrubs. Harvesting tomatoes, leeks, onions, beans, beets, carrots, raspberries, apples, pears, plums, cherries. Bee keeping. Artemis Honey for friends and for ourselves.

Kate’s quilting and sewing became her place to express love and imagination. I wrote. Many novels. Literally millions of words on this blog. We both supported, in our own ways, political values of compassion, love, justice. Or, leadership as my friends Paul and Sarah Strickland, Lonnie Helgeson, and Gary Stern defined it for Leadership Minneapolis back in the 1980’s. (funny story there. for another time.)

We moved. For family. And, because, as John Muir said, “The mountains were calling.” Mortality signals began coming with more urgency. Prostate cancer once. New knee. Prostate cancer twice. Kate’s Sjogren’s, her bleed, weight loss, lung disease. Her new shoulder and, earlier, hips.

All this time, even from my youth, besotted with religion, small r. The deep, the awesome, the wonderful. Sure, in my childhood it had Methodist as a label. Threw that away in my junior year of high school. “Your god is too small.”

Went looking for other clues. First in Roman Catholicism. Then, existentialism. Later, a more examined, more intellectual, more spiritual Christianity. The ministry. Disillusionment.

Here’s the synchronicity. Before I met Kate, a year or two, I’d been in spiritual direction with John Ackerman at Westminster Presbyterian. As I explained to him where I found spiritual sustenance, in the earth, a tactile spirituality, I said, he had an ah-ha, “Charlie, you’re a Druid!”

By the time I met Kate I was well on my way out of Christianity. In fact, I was all the way out, yet still, Grand Inquisitor fashion, working in the ministry. When she agreed to my quitting the ministry to write, the timing saved my soul.

She recommended I find a niche, a place to call my own when writing. Hmmm. Looked to my ancestors. Knew I had some Irish and Welsh blood, Ellis and Correl, so I went searching into Celtic thought.

The Great Wheel. Seems innocent enough, ordinary. An agricultural focused calendar. The Celts started out with only two seasons: Summer and the fallow time, Winter. They added the solstices and the equinoxes, then named the cross-quarter holidays: Beltane, May 1, Lughnasa, August 1, Samain, October 31st, and Imbolc, February 1, each halfway between either a solstice or an equinox.

The sequence was “…a Druid!”, Kate, Celtic thought, Andover and the perennial flowers, the orchard, the raised beds, the fire pit, the bees.

After, in Colorado, living in the Rockies, I found the consolation of Deer Creek Canyon. Drove back home to Shadow Mountain after my biopsy results confirmed my cancer diagnosis. Through Deer Creek Canyon.

The mountains on either side of the road that followed Deer Creek Canyon. Exposed rock, cliffs, peaks. Deer Creek moving rapidly down toward the South Platte. Their age. The Laramide Orogeny. Rock thrust up from its place in the earth’s crust. Started 80 million years ago, ended 33 million or so years ago.

Those rocks reached out to me as I drove, called to me. I thought about the Appalachians, once mighty and tall, now worn down by millennia of rain and streams and trees and grass. They formed 480 millions years ago. These mountains, these rocky mountains through which I drove were young. Still jagged, still exposed in parts. Might take 400 millions years, maybe more, to wear them down to Appalachian size.

The may fly. Flies up and mates in one day. Then, dies. Oh. I see. My life. A may fly life. Shorter, even, compared to the Rockies. More like a fraction of a second. When I’m gone, my may fly life ended by prostate cancer or something else, these mountains (I’m still driving and thinking and feeling shocked) will look as they do now. Yet, even their life above the earth’s crust has limits.

So, too, the earth. When the sun comes to the end of its life and becomes a red giant, it will engulf the earth and our planet, our only home, will be gone.

That day the strongest mortality signal I’ve ever received cracked me open, laid my soul bare to the complex interleaving of human life, of life itself, and the souls of the mountains. We are one, all part of the cycling of elements that began with the Big Mystery. We have our time, long or short, then we return to the primal forces that wander among solar systems and galaxies.

That was the Great Wheel realized at its most expansive, a repeating series of beginnings, growth, harvest, and decay. The movement from Beltane to Samain. It became enough for me, spiritually and religiously.

When the cancer reemerged, I was in a different place. The consolation of Deer Creek Canyon, the fundamental and universal rhythms of the Great Wheel had reshaped my inner landscape. I do not need a text based religion to tell me who I am or what life means. I do not need a guru or a silent retreat to go into my own deep well.

This is me. 72. Prostate cancer. Still alive. Still living my life. I sleep well at night. When I wake, I do not ruminate. I have a pleasant, floaty feeling, then return to sleep. This is new for me. Not something you’d expect after a recurrence of cancer, but true anyhow.

Here’s my direct answer to my friend. “Have I been informed by any wider sense of the simple joy of being?  Or any other description of the immediate worth of being?” Shifting one word is enough. “Have I been informed by any wider sense of the joy of becoming? Or any other description of the immediate worth of becoming?

Deer Creek Canyon finished my long journey from monotheism to a process theology. I was not. I am. I am not. I don’t care. A Roman epitaph. I would change it to: I was becoming. I am becoming. I will become. I love this butterfly turning of the Great Wheel.

With Chuang Tzu, I don’t know if I’m a butterfly dreaming of Charlie or Charlie dreaming of a butterfly.