letter to Sensei Glioblastoma

July 22, 2020

Dear Sensei Glioblastoma,

A year ago today I learned of your existence in the right parietal lobe of my brain. You got my attention with that spooky seizure in the parking lot of Safeway. Later in the emergency room, I caught a glimpse of what you looked like in the CT scan. I remember thinking, like an artist does, that there was a certain organic beauty in your form, like an aerial shot of a coral atoll. Later in the day, when I was strapped on a gurney in the back of the ambulance on my way to Denver, we drove through a torrential rainstorm going over La Veta pass. The ambulance lurched and jolted and shuddered and thumped its way up I-25 to Denver. All this peril was clear to me but somehow removed. Miraculously, Henry arrived in the hospital about four hours behind me. For some reason, even though a lot of my memory has since  thinned to threadbare, these details are etched and inked.

Sensei, I have been training with you for a year now. I see that you are a fierce, demanding, and relentless teacher. I see that taking ukemi from you means I have to be ready for anything, especially hard falls. That’s okay; I expect it. I see that you are also a jealous teacher. Thank you for keeping Sensei  Coronavirus out of the dojo.

I have more thanks to offer: Training with you has clarified many things in my life: how I want to fill up the time I have left, or leave it empty; who I want to hang out with; what I want to put into my artistic hopper and what I want to keep out; how important it is to have my hands in the dirt and on the stone and holding the brush; how important it is to touch Esperanza every day and  hold Henry’s hand at night and giggle in the morning.

However, I need to respectfully point out that I have just passed a kyu test, possibly a dan test that you didn’t schedule. Here’s my evidence:

  • I have kept my center and ground no matter what you have thrown at me
  • I have kept and even grown my sense of humor (or is it groan?)
  • I have never borne any malice toward you. Unlike much of the language around cancer, I have never spoken about defeating you or kicking your ass, tempting as that may be. I have always tried to practice aikido with you.
  • I know that, just like me, you are a bit of star stuff simply trying to survive.
  • Here’s the last bit of evidence, the thing that has promoted me in rank: I know that if you kill me, you will also kill yourself. And I know you know that too.
  • So I’m calling your bluff. I challenge you to join me in coming to some amiable, mutually respectful agreement so that we both get to live.
  • Doing so promotes me as your equal.

Your student… and colleague

Kathy san

Walkabout

Has anyone seen my bounce?

I think it might have gone walkabout.

Maybe the chipmunks stole it

although they seem to have bounce, squirm, and skitter to spare.

Maybe the hummingbirds thought it was nectar to rev up their tiny samurai hearts

as they duel over the pink juice in the feeder.

Maybe the robin that follows me, ever watchful for when I turn over a spadeful of wormy earth,   grabbed my bounce as well, thinking it succulent enough for its nestlings.

Maybe the distant gunshot scared my bounce off like a friend’s dogs scared off Blackie,

the best mouser/munker, bouncy-tailed, head-butting cat ever.

Maybe my bounce got tired of waiting for me to catch up to it,

dragging my feet as I do on the weeks I take chemo.

Maybe my bounce got buried by watching too much news

as we descend further and further into darkness.

But to paraphrase the Mexican proverb used by the Zapatistas,

maybe my bounce is a seed, so being buried would be welcomed.

If you happen to see my walkabout bounce gallivanting around town,

please bounce it back home to me.

Birth

Something racist, foul, cruel, and corrupt is in its death throes

as something egalitarian, loving, kind, and just is trying to be born.

But right now the baby is in a breech position

the mother’s cervix cannot dilate

the new babe cannot descend into the birth canal

hence the chaos, convulsions, contractions, violence, screaming, and pain.

 

Maybe the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s throat.

Maybe a ventilator is choking off the mother’s breath.

The motto for this year should be “I can’t breathe.”

 

We must all be midwives to the birth of a new way of being —

with ourselves, with each other, within our communities, and with Mother Earth.

We need to help the baby turn

and to do that we each have to turn something upside down inside ourselves.

We need to help the mother open and dilate,

and to do that we must open to something new and tender inside ourselves.

Individually and collectively, we have to make a shift, a tectonic shift, a polar shift.

There is no going back to normal.

I wouldn’t want to anyway —

the old normal is what got us into this mess.

There is only time for planting the seeds of a new life, a garden that will nourish all.

On wrapping a black belt around 45

Some of you may be having a gag reflex. Some may be thinking Kathy’s brain cancer is hollowing out her skull; she’s losing her mind. (Give me time; it may happen yet.)

Others of you may be thinking, oh good. At last someone sees 45’s greatness as the epitome of the American dream — a rich (formerly) handsome TV personality and real estate magnate with a lot of friends in high places who actually became the president of the United States. Hollywood couldn’t beat this with a stick.

Disclaimer/warning. Praising 45 is not the direction I’m heading. With all due respect, I don’t want to even say his name, hence 45. If you are a loyalist, you might want to stop reading right about now.

Let me backtrack a little before I lay out my argument. Yes, I have brain cancer — glioblastoma, the nasty kind that sucked the life out of Ted Kennedy and John McCain among many others. The day before my craniotomy I decided to wrap a black belt around my tumor and bow into it as I would a sensei. This makes sense in my world because I have practiced the peaceful martial art of aikido for over forty years. I am familiar with bowing into a sensei—to opening myself to a teaching, a discipline, a lineage, a practice—and to inviting a sensei to become a mirror for me so that I may understand my strengths and weaknesses, holes and gaps in my awareness, places I need to work on myself. I understand and honor the blood, sweat and tears that go into making a black belt. I should know; I am one.

Wrapping a black belt around glioblastoma isn’t about giving my life over to this little bit of scary star stuff that has decided to take up lodging in the warm folds of my gray matter. It isn’t about seeing the tumor as an enemy, as so many people assume, evident in the warlike language around cancer: beating cancer, kicking cancer’s ass, falling victim to cancer. That language doesn’t feel right for me because it sets up an adversarial relationship in which one entity wins and the other loses. It also increases my fear and anxiety, definitely not part of my treatment plan.

Wrapping a black belt around glioblastoma and bowing into the teaching that it can give restores my sense of balance, strength, self-discipline, and equanimity. It’s like a hotline into the most exquisite experience of mortality and the sacredness of life. I am savoring and seeing beauty all around me.

It is also clarifying like a new unblemished mirror. It isn’t news that I will die; no one escapes that fate. It isn’t even certain that I will die of brain cancer, not with the other senseis lurking about, not to mention all the other possible ways the fates could snip my thread. It is clarifying for me to realize there is no time to fuck around. If I want to carve that big block of marble into a seashell, then I better get my ass out there when the sun is just right and the wind isn’t too fierce, and work on it. If there’s someone I love, then I better tell them. If there’s something important I’ve left undone, I need to fix it. If there’s someone I’d rather not be around, I need to be honest and take care of myself. Sensei glioblastoma has given me complete license to pull the cancer card. I find it liberating and sometimes funny in a twisted and dark sort of way. It is natural for me to seek out the humor in the human condition, in my human condition, so why not now? Being diagnosed with brain cancer is like hitting the jackpot of irony and that’s worth a belly laugh or two.

Now we come to the second sensei. Earlier this spring when the pandemic came trundling along, it was natural for me to wrap a black belt around coronavirus as well. Sensei coronavirus is a sensei of epic proportions. Unlike sensei glioblastoma, who takes on one student at a time, sensei coronavirus is taking on whole countries. Hell, it is taking on all of humanity. I have written an ode to sensei coronavirus, praising it for its ability to challenge us all to push the reset button and reevaluate how we are living on this planet. The mirror sensei coronavirus holds up makes us question whether “normal” is a viable or sane way to live, considering how “normal” squanders resources, fouls our nest, wipes out species, promotes perpetual war and injustice, and is basically killing our home planet. Sensei coronavirus challenges us to take a good look at ourselves and how far we have “evolved.” Do fear and panic rule our lives? Is our community based on compassion and helping others who don’t have it as good as we do? Do we value those among us who are vulnerable or elderly? Do we value those of us who are incarcerated and stuck in a lockdown situation? Do we voluntarily wear a mask and limit our freedom to move because that is doing a favor to someone we may not know? Are we capable of acting selflessly? Or do we decide that the economy is more important and that some proportion of our population is essentially disposable. Are we that callous?

On every level, Sensei coronavirus is giving us a gigantic opportunity to change course, evidenced by the huge reduction in pollution and noise this spring, the dolphins swimming in the Venice canals, the selfless efforts of many to save lives even at risk to their own, the inventive entrepreneurs who let go of rigidity and adapted to our new conditions and parameters. Look at how many people are planting a garden.

Okay. Now comes the hard part. The third sensei. I can’t hold it for very long, but every once in a while I practice wrapping a black belt around 45. Not that he deserves the honor. Not that he has any notion of self-discipline, or of honoring the tradition in a lineage or stepping onto the mat with respect. Not that he knows how to be an empty cup willing to learn, and to shed blood, sweat and tears in that sincere effort. Not that he knows anything about peaceful conflict resolution. Far from it.

I practice wrapping a black belt around 45 not because it changes him but because it changes me. My stress level goes down, my equanimity is restored, I can breathe again and I no longer feel trapped. It won’t work for me to simply hate him or cast him as the evil villain. It won’t work for me to feel sorry for him because on some deep psychological level he is damaged goods. Although that may be true, I could build a similar case for myself, but unlike 45, I know that growing up means you take responsibility for what happened in your past, even if it wasn’t your fault.

In order to practice wrapping a black belt around 45, I have go into my own black belt body. I become grounded and centered, calm and alert, sane and peaceful. I can tap into 360° awareness. I can feel my support system, everyone who loves me and has my back, all the senseis who have taught me, and all the experiences from which I have chosen to learn. From that perspective, I can see him. No that’s not quite it: I can see through him. I can see his modus operandi. He is a one-man tornado with an incredible but (at this point) predictable instinct for picking people who lick his hand like beaten dogs, and do his bidding as a collective wrecking crew. Think of the nasty black belt in The Karate Kid who counseled his students to show no mercy, to play dirty and to use their skills for personal gain, and you might get a feeling for what I’m talking about. Still, Jackie Chan stayed true to his own discipline, bowed to the nasty sensei, and dealt with him honorably. If I embody my practice, perhaps I too will be able to maintain some dignity and reduce my ability to be fooled or taken in.

If I wrap a black belt around 45, I can see what he has mastered. He is a master of chaos, opportunism, divide and conquer, bait and switch, gaslighting, deception, and lies. He excels at narcissism, racism, misogyny, and cruelty. (Feel free to add to this list.) I can see that he is the epitome not of the American dream but of the American nightmare. And that is what sensei 45 mirrors back to us and to our nation. No wonder he’s so hard to look at.

 

An octet of haiku

Chemo brain haiku:

a midnight obsession with

counting syllables.

 

 

Cool breeze caresses,

wafting thoughts pass through my mind:

a spiraling leaf.

 

 

The road whines louder.

People want normal again

but normal is gone.

 

 

Fantasy road trip:

the pop up yellow camper

California bound

 

 

Basin and range and

Sierras beckon but my

sisters say not now

 

 

She sent me photos

Venice pigeons on my head—

she is letting go

 

 

A rush and a bloom

Night owl hoots. Mice scamper.

Pink brain orgasm

 

 

What if you don’t know

whether this is the last time?

See it; savor it.

 

my two centos

RADIATION CENTO*

what would you think if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Well there’s so many sinking now
rape, murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away
there must be some kind way out of here,
You gotta keep thinking
You can make it through these waves
lean on me when you’re not strong. I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.
So darlin, darlin, stand by me.

 

 

GARDEN/CORONAVIRUS CENTO*

There’s something happening here;

what it is ain’t exactly clear.

I learned as a child not to trust in my body;

I’ve carried that burden through my life.

 

I see something of myself in everyone.

Dark holes in the spirit world…

Death’s no stranger,

no stranger than the life I’ve lived.

 

Use me till you use me up.

Use me while you can;

We all have to be pried loose; and we

got to get ourselves back to the garden.

 

*cento is latin for patchwork garment. it’s a poetic form that borrows quotations from other people’s work. it essentially legitimizes plagiarism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duck and Cover

 

I am 11 years old at Radnor elementary school, huddled on my knees and elbows underneath my wooden desk. The sound of the air raid drill is far more disturbing than the one for the fire drill. Even though my arms are enfolding my head, I can peek around and see the other students ducking and covering just as I am. My father, who works on civil defense for the National Academy of Sciences has shown me movies of houses blown away by the ferocious winds of a nuclear explosion. I’ve seen the firestorms and the mushroom cloud in all its unworldly and catastrophic beauty. These images are seared into my psyche, a brand, a tattoo I can never erase.

 

At home my parents’ eyes search into the TV screen pleading for Walter Cronkite to offer some kind of solace, but there is none. Warships encircle and seal off the island of Cuba. Satellite pictures show installations of missiles bristling with nuclear bombs. Just as some young black men today are sure that they will never live past 18 because the system is stacked against them, I was sure that my world, my family, my country, would never survive because of nuclear holocaust. Even so, my mother stocked the shelves of our pitiful fallout shelter underneath the stairs with cans of Campbell’s soup — cream of mushroom, blackbean, tomato. I could hear my parents talking about what would happen if my father got the call, the call telling him to jump into his Volkswagen bug and drive to some secluded Maryland mountain, leaving part of his family behind. My oldest siblings are in college or out in the world already, but my younger sister and I are at home, scared to the bone as if irradiated with fear.

 

Now we are in the middle of a global pandemic. I think about all the 11-year-olds in my community sequestered at home, missing their buddies at school, fumbling through a patchwork of improvised assignments delivered through the mail or online. What does the future look like for them? What kind of fallout shelter could protect them from this virus, a sticky glob that apparently can live on surfaces for an unknown amount of time, that cleverly transmits itself from one host to another, a smart virus that doesn’t kill  its host too quickly, a virus which has put a halt to human activity and anthropogenic climate change far more effectively than any law or speech or picture of a starving polar bear. What will the world look like once the virus has rampaged through Mexico, India, Africa, South America, the Navajo reservation, the Brazilian rain forest, places that aren’t so much worried about a shortage of masks or ventilators because their problems are far more fundamental: plumbing, sanitation, food, water, basic health services. It is these shortages that will fast-track the virus’s conquest of humanity.

 

I think about all my incarcerated students who are all-too-familiar with mandatory shelter in place, but whose cramped conditions will make the virus’s spread a romp in the park. Ironically, the novel I have assigned many of them and that they are writing about concerns a global pandemic. Written in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II and the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Earth Abides is one of the first post-apocalyptic novels. Rather than describing the aftermath of nuclear holocaust, it describes how a small group of survivors find each other and attempt to create a new civilization from the embers of the last one after a plague wipes out most of humanity. In the novel, the characters painfully learn that there is no “returning to normal.” There is no government to inject feeble stimulus packages, too little, too late. There are no posturing politicians spewing empty promises. There is only a crumbling infrastructure, the detritus of a century of unsustainable production and technology to glean from until even that, after many years, is gone. The great libraries stand empty and dusty. The power plants have long ago ceased to run. The information and skills the survivors need are far more rudimentary and Earth-based than a book or a socket and a cord. What they need now is the ability to dig a well, plant a garden and put food by. What secures their future is the ability to re-envision a flexible sapling, a braided length of cordage, a sharpened stone or an old coin pounded into a triangular shape and tied on to a straight grained and polished shaft of wood.

 

Whatever the future holds, this beautiful, miraculous, and scarred brown-green-blue planet will survive even if humanity does not.  I have no doubt that Earth will abide.

2020 vision

At the beginning of the year I wished for 2020 vision

in all ways possible.

I wished for us to be clear-headed and clear-hearted;

clear in our words and actions;

clear about our needs and priorities;

clear about who we love and what we must do to protect our children

for many generations to come;

I wished that we be clear about the challenges we face on Mother Earth;

clear about a peaceful, just, sustainable vision for the future

and what we can do—now—to make it so,

not just for humanity, but for all beings:

the rooted ones, the winged ones, the finned ones,

ones with legs who walk or hop upon the ground,

and the writhing ones with no legs—

we are all brothers and sisters.

 

I didn’t realize that my prayer would also shine a laser

illuminating dust bowl tornados of obfuscation;

muddy swamps of me-centered myopia;

darkened mazes of willful blindness,

a refusal to see, to light a candle, to accept guidance, or to even change.

What we have too much of is deception and deceit and a descent into dystopia

when what is called for is

clear vision, the big picture,

care for the seventh generation and the paradise

this Earth once was and can be again.

We need the eagle eye that sees the sky, the mountain, the field, the mouse,

and the eaglets peeping in their tree-embraced nest.

 

 

Mosaic

My fears have nothing to do with running out of toilet paper, the solution to which seems obvious; it fits nicely into the analogy of “deal with your own shit.” I’m not afraid of being “sheltered in place.” I’ve been practicing social distancing as a preference for many years. That’s why I’ve lived in tiny places on the fringe, and why I feel like I “fit” in the SLV, a community of natural social-distancers.

My fears aren’t particularly focused on dying of the dreaded virus, as I’ve already signed off on that form, the one presented to me on a clipboard before my craniotomy that spelled out all the possible side effects: stroke, paralysis, coma, death. Sensei Glioblastoma has already laid claim to me, so when Sensei Covid-19 comes knocking on my titanium door, I imagine Sensei Glio will say “fuck off. This one’s already mine. Go pick on somebody else.”

I am afraid of suffering, not too much for myself as for Henry, my family, my friends, my community, my horse. We were planning a road trip to California in April to see loved ones and the David Park retrospective at SFMOMA, but of course those plans are now in the compost pile. I dread not being able to say hello… and possibly goodbye… to my family, some of whom have plenty of health issues they are already dealing with without Sensei Covid jumping on the pile. I dread not being able to remember the last time I saw my brother, my sisters, my cousins and nieces and nephews and their beautiful families.

I had a bad dream about my horse the other night. I should never have read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In the dream, my neighbors, most of whom are armed and not skilled at gardening, became increasingly desperate as the shit really hit the fan. They determined that what’s growing in the greenhouse (a feast to us) wouldn’t even be fit to garnish a steak, and then they began to view Esperanza and her field mate Stormy as those tasty steaks. I wondered if I should call up the wonderful horseman I’ve asked to give Esperanza a forever home when I die. Should he come now, or later? Should I just ride her out to the wildlife refuge—where’s there’s plenty of feed and the Rio Grande—and let her go? My fearful mind frets like picking cuticles until they bleed. My heart and body say no, not yet. I need to see her, touch her, hug her every day.

I dread facing all this alone, especially without Henry, should he succumb. I would miss his silly antics, his warm and gentle hands, the feeling of working as a team, our secret language, our shared memories, our nest and our dreams.

I fell in the hole of depression the other day and started unraveling the thread that holds together my whole being. Why bother making any more paintings or sculptures? No one will want them, or if they do, they will be unable to pay for them, so why am I even bothering? But the logical end to that way of thinking leads me directly to drinking the Kool-Aid — you know the kind I mean.

Thankfully, some greater, wiser part of me refuses to go there. I feel my Aikido senseis, my sculpture mentor, my parents and my tough New England heritage, and all who have already passed over to the other side. They steady my hands, put me firmly back my body, get my feet walking out to the studio where I turn on the lights, pick up a piece, and get to work. I can’t not do it. It is who I am.

I think about the women in prison with whom I worked in the early 90s. They would make elaborate and detailed braids in each other’s hair. They would make pencil or pen drawings in which there were more strokes of the pencil or pen then there was empty white paper. I remember asking them the same question that is often asked of me when someone sees me carving stone. “But doesn’t that take an awful lot of time? I would never have that much patience. Or time.” The women in prison would look at me, the irony arching in their penciled eyebrows, and say “time is what we’ve got. Having a project that takes a lot of time makes the time go faster.”

I worry about my incarcerated students living through this panic-demic. When the prisons lock down (which no doubt they will if they haven’t already), will they also lock down the mail? Because if that happens, there goes ASU’s Prison College Program, and there goes my job. And there goes our income. When Sensei Glioblastoma first beckoned me, I played a morbid game called “what could be worse than brain cancer?” Having brain cancer in prison — that was my first response. Having brain cancer in a locked down prison with the virus on the loose and no medical treatment available. That would suck too.

Meanwhile, during this giant “timeout — go to your room,” Mother Earth has a chance to repair some of her many, many wounds and the abuses caused by humanity’s excess and addiction to squandering. We must grow up and take responsibility for what we have mindlessly, recklessly, selfishly created, whatever our original intentions may have been. Change or die. We may enjoy ragging on our narcissistic, cavalier, and predatory president, but the truth is most of the first world is narcissistic, cavalier, and predatory in relation to Mother Earth. It’s got to stop.

There is no going back to normal. As Bruce Cockburn sang many years ago, “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” There is no “normal” that will be handed down, restored, or sold to us. The truth is we don’t know what will happen. We each must get okay with not knowing. We’re all responsible for our own sanity. We each must find that equilibrium, that thing that makes us tick, that brings us joy, that births beauty and love and connection into in the world.  We each have to practice Tikkun Olam. Pick up the broken pieces that you alone can see and reach, and mend them as best you can into a new and possibly glorious mosaic world.

The sky is clear, the birds are singing, and the dolphins have returned to Venice.