I finished Adriene’s 30 day True series this morning. It was good, just the right speed for where I am in the recovery process, and the final sun salutation brought with it a sense of closure. As I breathed deeply into my rapidly recovering lungs, I glanced out the window at the men pouring concrete into the foundation of the new house going up next door and I gave thanks that I wasn’t them. My little space heater barely makes a dent in the frigid air so my breath fogged the window as my toes turned blue, but I gave thanks all the same. One does not wear socks when one does downward dog. Yoga must be approached with respect and I give it with gratitude and humility.
Last week I lost my Pasmo train pass, the day after I’d charged it with 5000yen. An hour later I got a call from a station employee saying they’d found it and I could come pick it up. Ah, Japan. I gave thanks.
On Monday I had a wicked scare at the hospital but the doctors went into overdrive and fixed the problem. Their bedside manners might leave something to be desired, but they know their stuff when it comes to medicine. I gave thanks, more than once.
Yesterday at the supermarket, an old lady was having a hard time with her shopping cart so I helped her with it. Not only did she not give thanks, she didn’t even look at me, just walked away with a “harumph”. Meh. Her problem, not mine, but I watched my brownie points swarm with confusion, not knowing quite what to do with themselves.
Tomorrow I board a plane for a long overdue vacation in Hawaii where I will be able to salute the sun properly, and she will cook some of the stiffness out of my joints and muscles. Then I will stuff myself with mangoes and listen to the sound of the surf and congratulate myself for surviving last year, all the while giving thanks.
I will continue to give thanks, for the sun in the sky and the air in my lungs and the blood in my veins and being able to walk and talk and see and sleep and eat and think and feel and love. Thanks.
For a long time, each new year has felt like a temporal follow-on from the previous one. What difference does a new year make? Turning the page on a calendar doesn’t mean anything. Time doesn’t care how we count it. Time just is. Time moves forward; nothing changes.
But this year is different. With a silent whoop I tossed last year’s calendar in the trash. For once, there is something to celebrate. Last year was harsh. After the initial shock and fear, there was a slow dawning of the enormity of what lay ahead. After a time, I was moving on autopilot, incapable of even thinking about the future.
Most of what I did last year was passive. I had surgery, slept in the narrow bed, I ate the horrid food (sometimes). I opened the door to the doctor’s office, week after sweaty summer week, and received my chemo treatments. I walked to the hospital day after crisp autumn day and lay still for radiation. It would have been so much easier to run away.
I spent an entire year having things done to me. I was the horse hitched to the wagon, the bit between my teeth, the reins being pulled by drivers I couldn’t see. I plodded along the trail, hoping I would reach my destination even though it seemed that each step forward pushed it farther away.
I feel as if an earthquake has shaken all the merchandise off the shelves in my internal warehouse. I see a mountain of mess, hair clips and a Barbie doll and a rubber snake and Christmas wreaths and chocolate cookies and tarnished earrings and broken dishes and knotted shoelaces and a one-eyed Teddy bear, a scratched record, some snarled yarn, a battered shoe box, a single sock.
Some of these things can be dusted off and returned to the shelves. Some can be salvaged, a bit of glue, some polish, a button. Some are lost causes. The coming months will see me sorting through the flotsam of me and trying to make sense of it, putting the pieces back together where I can, figuring out what no longer serves.
To do that, I will eat well, sleep a lot, watch butterflies flit and smell the flowers. I will also do yoga.
This is Adriene. She just started TRUE: 30 Day Yoga Journey. It’s online. It’s free. It’s the foundation I need to start getting back on track, start reminding my muscles and my spirit of what they can do, what they need, where they are going. Adriene has a an easy nature and a wonderful smile and manages to bring me back to the mat, day after day. There are hundreds of yoga classes online and I have tried many of them, but I keep coming back to Adriene. She is part of my journey.
I have been doing yoga long enough to appreciate the Zen it represents, the thousands of years of practice and millions of practitioners who have put their lives, their bodies, their faith into its calm, gracious power to heal. I know the joy of a pose feeling right regardless of how it looks, the freedom of air moving through my lungs, the pulsing electricity of blood flying through my veins, the serenity of balance, the golden, fleeting, priceless gift of each moment that no longer exists once it passes and yet is eternal in my memory.
A friend said I am a fierce woman ready to take 2018 and squeeze every last drop of magic out of it. Amen, sistah. Someone left the barn door open and I’m ready to bolt.
I happened to walk in on the Unicorn.
She was combing her shimmering mane
And polishing her horn
In preparation for New Years shenanigans.
She looked at me.
She was not pleased.
I wasn’t being nosy.
I just happened to walk in.
I didn’t know she was in the room.
She said it was all right.
I was not to worry.
It could happen to anyone.
And then this happened.
Do you know what’s worse than a burnt unicorn?
A whole herd of burnt unicorns.
Don’t mess with the Unicorn.
It will be better than 2017.
Be safe, be careful.
As snowflakes gently surrender to gravity and make their way toward the earth, a little girl opens her eyes. It is early Christmas morning. She extends her arm in front of her face and can just make out the shape of her hand in the murky light.
She leaps out of bed, knowing she has permission to go downstairs and explore the contents of her stocking, as long as she does it quietly. The big people will need a couple more hours and a cup or two of coffee before they’ll be ready for Christmas, a terrible lapse in judgement as far as the little girl is concerned. But she is already old enough, and still young enough, to know the world is full of magic and mysteries.
She sails down the stairs and grasps the stocking to her chest, feeling the crinkly, crunchy promise of the collection of shapes bumping and jostling against each other inside. Pulling out the goodies one by one, she finds underwear, personalized pencils, chocolate footballs, an orange, three walnuts and a sliver dollar. Every year, those items appear and she never asks why; without them it would not be Christmas.
At the very bottom of the stocking, tucked into the toe, there is a small scroll, a piece of paper rolled tightly and fastened with a red ribbon. She slips off the ribbon and discovers that the paper is a blood test report, indicating that her tumor markers have fallen below normal levels.
The little girl, now a middle aged woman, looks up, barely daring to mouth the words, “Does this mean I don’t have cancer?”
From his perch on the roof, Santa peers down the chimney. Laying a finger beside his sooty nose, he winks and says, “Yes. It means you don’t have cancer.”
The girl/woman feels her insides curl into a ball, like a cat on a sunny windowsill, its nose tucked under its tail, its purr and twitching whiskers proof of contentment.
Just then, her phone jingles. She thinks of Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” saying that every time a bell rings, an angel gets their wings. But this time it is an app that gives a jingle every time Tokyo Tales gets a new follower.
My junior year in high school, I had World History with Miss Wilt, who was long and lean and always wore go-go boots. She would stand in front of the class with her elegant hands folded in a way that I’ve never seen since. She was always calm, always poised. I am grateful for Miss Wilt.
Miss Wilt taught me to write. She said we must always write five paragraphs: 1) an introduction of the social, political, and economic factors behind whatever we were writing about, 2) the social factors, 3) the political factors, 4) the economic factors and 5) a conclusion drawn from the above. The factors did not have to be in that order, but that’s how she taught them and I will always remember them that way.
I didn’t want to do it that way. I thought I should use my impressive and overflowing creativity to flaunt convention and write in my own style, which I did. Miss Wilt would graciously say that I had some good ideas but my writing was all over the place. To illustrate, had Mozart done that, his first concerto would have featured a lot of flat notes and jarring chords and audience members fleeing for the safety of a Salieri opera. In other words, if you don’t get organized, you’ll never find what you’re looking for, much less get your brilliant ideas across to your readers.
So one day I decided to swallow my pride and do it the way Miss Wilt suggested. I don’t remember what I was writing about, probably some aspect of World War II. (We spent a lot of time on that. Miss Wilt’s class once had a visitor, an old man with a number tattooed on his wrist. It was a little weird growing up non-Jewish in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, but good for me overall. I knew next to nothing about the Pacific war before I lived here.)
The essay I wrote was clear, precise and to the point. I got my first A. Today, in that grand tradition, I would like to share a brief essay with you. It’s titled “2017 Sucked”.
The year 2017 can be characterized by total suckage. It would be hard to pinpoint any year in recent decades that sucked as much. Well, 1995 sucked. Actually, 2011 sucked even more. It sucked so much, I can’t even touch it. So let’s keep this on a personal level. For me, in 2017, politics, economics and society all sucked. Allow me to explain.
In 2017, a tangerine colored buffoon moved into the White House and has proceeded to undermine most of the social, political and economic progress that had been made in the past several centuries. If he has his way, the universe will be controlled by white male Christians and all other people will be illiterate, barefoot and pregnant, including black Muslim men. I don’t suppose he can see the impracticality of that. Despite it’s political stodginess, I find myself more and more grateful that I live in Japan. The suckage here is of a whole different genre, and much less embarrassing on a global scale. Still, overall, politics suck.
In the year 2017, I experienced medical challenges I barely managed to cope with, both physically and financially. The medical crisis culminated in having a tooth pulled on Christmas Day. That sucked, but in a way, it was funny. Imagine finding a dentist in the office on Christmas Day in the States. Here, I got a last minute appointment and zip-zap out it came. Quick and painless and only cost about $25; socialized insurance is a good thing. Overall suckage: 50%.
The social aspects of this year are harder to quantify. Pleasant for me is that I have developed some new friendships that I know will be with me forever; unpleasant is making plans with them and having to cancel, again and again, because I’m too beaten down to leave the house. That sucks, but at the same time, those friends have been warm and understanding and infinitely patient. To be fair, social suckage is only around 10%.
In conclusion, politics suck, medical problems and expenses suck, but on the social plane, people love me and I love them back. That pretty much doesn’t suck at all. Sadly, I think Miss Wilt would give me a C for this essay because I’ve contradicted myself so many times but I will always be grateful for what she taught me. And 2017 sucked.
When I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, each Christmas we went downtown to Buhl Planetarium to see the miniature railroad exhibition. It was pretty great. The exhibit included several trains running along tracks and making lovely clickety-clack sounds, houses, cars, people–everything on a teeny scale. It was always a delight.
So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the hospital in early December for one of my daily zaps and discovered a whole Christmas village set up on a table in the lobby. It only had one train, but it was merrily clickety-clacking along an oval track.
From a distance, it was absolutely charming but upon looking closer, I discovered an odd assortment of elements. There were a couple of Hallmark looking houses, a Lincoln Log church, a fort made of blocks with a chimpanzee on its roof, a train station (nowhere near the train) with a bride and broom in front of it, a chicken coop, a polar bear, some pandas and, of course, Santa and a moose having a cookout. I could smell the hot dogs and ‘smores.
All I could think was, “Why not?”
I grew up with certain cultural prejudices, certain beliefs that things were a certain way and set in stone. But even now I am discovering how wrong I was about some things. For example, the Virgin Mary, not her son, was herself the Immaculate Conception with her immaculacy having been brought about at her conception by virtue of the birth of her son. (Huh?) Somehow that made it possible for her to get pregnant without exposing herself to a) a doorknob, b) a toilet seat, or c) sperm. I’m no scientist but I have a hard time swallowing that. I contend that either Mary was a liar or doorknob and toilet seat sanitation left a lot to be desired in those days. At any rate, despite what my high school sex ed instructor said, that was entirely possible, a good thing, and much to be admired. (Uh…all right. If you say so.)
But lets move on.
Somehow, this son of hers came about and grew up to be a carpenter and really swell guy. When he wasn’t building oxcarts or cobbling tables or creating sperm-infested doorknobs, he spent his time telling people to be nice to each other, which so enraged the Romans that they nailed him to a cross. (Come on now.)
But wait. It gets better.
Even swell guys die, and he did, but three days later he got better. He arose from his pallet, single-handedly and in true Superman style moved a five ton stone blocking the entrance to his tomb, popped into an impromptu supper with a few of his mates, then sailed off to heaven a la ET, and now we commemorate that equally hard to swallow tale by worshiping a bunny wearing a bow tie and carrying a basket full of plastic grass, chocolate eggs and jelly beans. (Say what???)
So what have we learned? Miniature train exhibitions are often not what they seem, love and marriage might go together like a horse and carriage but sex and pregnancy are another story, and people do not like being told to be nice to each other. Oh, and as long as sugar and plastic are involved, people will swallow just about anything.
If you have issues with any of that, I offer an alternative. I give you the Unimoose.
The Unimoose is wise. He is strong. He has courage and a wicked sense of humor. He can make you smile and stop taking yourself so seriously. He can help you take a step back and see that so many things in your life are good, so many things in you are good. He can see into the future and assure you that this, too, will pass.
Since 2017 has sucked worse than wet socks on a cold day and stale potato chips in rancid onion dip, the Unimoose has donned his hat and scarf and straddled his glimmering pink unicorn to ride bravely into the future and bring you hope. Such a teeny word, just four little letters, but for me, at least, it makes all the difference.
I’ve been reading about a classmate of mine whose daughter has a rare and rather nasty form of cancer. My heart goes out to her, to him, to the rest of her family, their friends, and to everyone else whose lives they touch. I cannot begin to imagine how any of them are coping with that reality.
In the seemingly endless process of dealing with cancer, I have found one of the toughest struggles is making my peace with it. Half my intellect says, “This should not be; there is no logic to it.” The other half says, “It is what it is. Get on with it.” My heart contracts into fetal position in a dusty corner and weeps.
A sumo tournament of conflicting thoughts is thundering inside my head. A teenager with cancer is a tragedy; a middle-aged woman with cancer is not. But where is the tragedy? The middle-aged woman has already lived more than half of her life; she knows what she would have missed. The teenager has barely begun her journey; the future is a mystery no one can know. The middle-aged woman has probably seen tragedy, anguish, desperation in other people’s lives and in her own; with luck, the teenager has not. A teenager is more able to accept the unacceptable, to believe the unbelievable, to see the abnormal as normal. Acceptance may be harder for the middle-aged woman who has lived long enough to be aware of, and dread, some of the bumps and jolts that life will eventually offer. The teenager has the purity of belief that she is immune to the evils of the world, she is safe, indestructible, and all will be well.
You can’t compare the teenager and the middle-aged woman, the lamb and the ewe, the pristine silk stocking with the worn woolen sock. What value does experience have? What value innocence? When do we stop asking questions like that and just get on with it? How can we?
I was coming to the end of my endless radiation treatments when I had my final doctor visit. She said, “As you know, the effects are cumulative. The worst of it will be within the two weeks after treatment ends.”
THWAP! Out of nowhere, another boot hurled itself toward my head.
All along, every doctor I’d talked to said that most people don’t have any reaction at all. If anything, I was supposed to experience nothing more than a mild sunburn. Mild sunburn my Aunt Fanny! I am very pale and love to go to the beach; I know what a sunburn feels like. The day after the final treatment, my armpit looked like someone had left a hot iron on it. And it got worse over the next couple of days, eventually developing as severe burns do, then into a rash on the middle of my chest. The redness progressed sideways, downward and across my chest. I would have had to pull a Rip Van Winkle under a sunlamp to get this kind of burn. Perhaps the doctors meant the type of sunburn you might get on Venus. I’ve heard awful things about the beaches on Venus. Sunscreen SPF 462 is recommended, one factor for each degree Celsius of average surface temperature. Yeah, that must be what they meant.
The silver lining, if you care to see it that way, is that the worst of the burn is on the part of my armpit that is still numb from surgical nerve damage. I look at it, touch it, and know that it should hurt, but it doesn’t. That makes me wonder: where does pain go when you can’t feel it? And what is the purpose of pain that is not felt? If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to see it, does it hurt?
I have a hard time not getting angry at the medical people I’ve dealt with over the past year. The occasional sympathetic nod does not make up for the overall indifference. They either pat my knee and tell me I’m going to die (we’ll let that one go) or they understate the case so much that the reality is a shock. Their attitude makes me think of a quote from Buddhist scriptures: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” I’m certainly the one who got burned. But what’s the point in anger? It won’t make the doctors lose any sleep, won’t make my pain any less real.
I still have to believe, as they do, that the treatment will prolong my life. I’ve read that some of the effects of chemotherapy and radiation may never go away completely, but at least I will be alive to experience them. There’s no point in assigning blame, no point in calling any of this good or bad. It just is. I have to make my peace with all of that. If I am lucky and I am strong enough, I can find a way to learn from all of this and move on.
So, I slather myself with Aloe Vera and coconut oil and hope that they will work their magic. And I keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I have spent the past few years trying, with some success, to cultivate a sense of gratitude. I don’t mean Pollyanna gratitude: “Thank you so much for the one legged blind teddy bear that smells like old dog! It’s the best Christmas present ever!” No, what I mean is more a sense of finding what is unique or at least special about my life, my family and friends, the things I live my life among, and loving them for what they are, giving them the value they deserve. It’s also putting envy into perspective. I will always be envious of some things: people who are tall, people who can do math, people who can eat eggplant, people who can sing or juggle or Magic Eye. I know I will never have or be those things but I can envy those people without actually wanting to be them. I can see something beautiful in a store and enjoy its beauty, bask in it even, without wanting to own it, pleased that it exists but not needing it in my life, allowing my magic credit card to rest.
So now I am trying to find gratitude in the fact that I had my final radiation treatment today. There will be no more solitary morning walks to the hospital, no more taking off my shirt and lying on the table while people whose names I don’t know draw on me with magic markers. No more waiting in the pink paper line, no more pulling out my magic credit card and paying the bill, day after day after twenty-five days. I can sleep in. I can take my time with morning yoga, finally start to work back toward where I was when this all began. I can finally start scrubbing the map of Arizona off my chest.
(As a side note, one radiation treatment costs just about the same as a 1200 gram bottle of organic Acacia honey. Given a choice, I’d rather have the honey. Extra irony: my credit card is magical because it can somehow withdraw an unlimited amount of money from my bank account. The organic honey store only accepts cash.)
When I was dressed and opened the curtain, the radiation room was deserted. There was nobody to say good-bye to except the horrible machine but we had never really made friends. It felt strangely unfinished, like I should get a lollipop or a balloon, something to mark yet another passage through the surreal world that my life has entered.
So I walked back home, just another day, and got to work on the script for a program I will direct next week. In the program, three teams compete to make the springiest food they can come up with. One makes a gelatin-and-starch-based, multi-textured pudding (ugh), another makes a sticky rice ball seasoned with tomato and basil and topped with fish (blech) and the third, the crown jewel, is a blue, bacon-flavored lollipop made of mochi and swathed in mustard-flavored cotton candy. I kid you not.
Monkey Boy was minding his own business, having a nice nap in front of the kerosene heater, when I barfed on him. And then I realized I had something more to be grateful for. Nobody will ever force me to eat a blue bacon-flavored mochi lollipop swathed in mustard-flavored cotton candy. And as wild as my imagination may be at times, it will never go that far. For that, I am also grateful.
Most of what you’ve heard about Japanese manners is true. There are prescribed behaviors for nearly every situation. This makes social interaction glitchless since everyone usually knows exactly what is expected of them.
There are exceptions to accepted behavior, of course, although most rules follow the concepts of honne/inside and tatemae/outside. In a nutshell, it’s OK to fart in public but you wouldn’t do that at the dinner table. One of the most extreme examples I ever saw was a Japanese man standing under a “No Smoking” sign at an airport. He was smoking, and when he was done, he dropped the butt on the carpet and ground it out with his shoe. He probably doesn’t do that at home.
Elevator etiquette is simple and clear. Whoever gets in first holds the “Door Open” button until everyone else gets in. When we arrive, that same person holds the button again until everyone gets off. I’m very careful about this, especially at the hospital, not just because it is expected, but also because many of the others in the elevator are worse off than me, with canes, walkers or wheelchairs. No one should be penalized for being broken or sick, and the good little girl inside me feels good about being good. Plus, nobody can have too many brownie points.
The other day, however, a woman held the “Door Open” button while I got on, but when we got to the dungeon, she dashed off first, leaving me to fend for myself. I just shrugged, figuring she was a) in a hurry, b) oblivious, c) hates foreigners or d) a bitch.
I followed her to the computer where we scan our bar codes and of course her name went up above mine on the monitor. Two minutes later, the tech called me.
I don’t know why that happened. I’m quite sure it isn’t because I am a Badass Unicorn Juju-powered Hottie, although that certainly doesn’t hurt. Most likely, the machine was already set up for zapping torsos and she was there for some other body part. Whatever the reason, I thanked the Goddess and was careful not to look at her as I was leaving, although the bad little girl inside me was throwing mud pies and sticking out her tongue.