What You Should Do In My Situation (A List of Two)

And face it, anyone reading this is in my situation. A high school classmate of Maurice Sendak’s, meeting him in later life, asked him how it felt to be famous. “I still have to die,” Sendak replied. Not tactful, but true. So what should you do?

  1. Make a will. You can now do this interactively on the internet, Google around & find a service that fits your preferences, then go through the process. You can save your work & return to it. It took me about four hours over two days. Doing this may prompt you to make sure that your savings & other financial arrangements are in order & especially that beneficiaries are named & recorded.
  2. Make a health care proxy. Different people want different kinds of care as they approach death. Some want to struggle as long as possible for life; others want to find the quietest most peaceful road out of town. The same sites that allow you to make a will online have the forms for a health care proxy. It will take you through the necessary steps so that you can spell out what kind of care you wish to receive. (Going through this process helped me to clarify my own thinking.) A proxy allows those responsible for your well-being  to know what you want when you can no longer tell them. It also relieves those same people of having to guess what you would want. It would be unjust to put anyone in that position.

These may seem like platitudes. Even if they are, you will be reducing the total amount of grief in the world by some small increment by taking my advice. Even if you are young.


My Situation (A List of Eleven)

Note: I haven’t done a list post for quite a while–it’s a form that allowed me to find a way into using this space creatively again about six months ago, after a long break from writing, so I’m partial to it. It occurred to me while writing the last post that I might have avoided some of the semantic circling with a list, but rather than recase that piece, I think I’ll just start fresh.

  1. My situation is that I have been diagnosed with a form of kidney cancer that they tell you up front does not have a cure.
  2. But they also tell you that you can have an extended period of health with treatment.
  3. I am undergoing treatment. This consists of taking a particular drug for three months with two weeks off the drug twice during the period of treatment. The side-effects are not bad. At the moment, sleepiness when I’d like to be awake & insomnia (sometimes) when I’d like to be asleep.
  4. Because the tumor spread into my left hip, I have trouble walking without support, so I use a walker. I would like to graduate to a cane, which would give me a lot more mobility. I also spend most of my time sitting up in bed & though it is no longer very difficult to get up & down, I am slow & being slow when one is used to being fast is frustrating.
  5. I have to the best of my ability taken care of financial & other arrangements so as to make, when the time comes, a responsible exit from this life.
  6. I increasingly find myself entertaining notions of rebirth that I would have rejected as infantile wish-fulfilment only a few months ago.
  7. I am not really afraid of death, but I fear the loss of autonomy that accompanies modern, technological medical care; at the same time, I am grateful that I have access to that care. I have does as much as possible to insure my wishes are observed when I can no longer express myself.
  8. But I have been feeling a good deal of regret lately over things I had wanted to do that have been moved off the board. I have to use the markers that remain on the board & that has engendered some resentment.
  9. I am not much interested in distractions & entertainment, but I am deeply attached to my ability to continue to work at making poems & engaging the world through writing. Reading still feels worthwhile–both as a higher form of distraction & as education.
  10. The only other things that interest me deeply these days is talking to people–close friends I’ve had for a long time, mere acquaintances & everyone in between. I find people’s conversation endlessly worthwhile. The most worthwhile of all, though, is the conversation of friends. I am fortunate to have friends & to have them close enough that they can drop by to talk.
  11. No list, by its very nature, can be exhaustive; yet anyone’s situation contains an infinite number of potential items. This list, like any list, is a kind of snapshot of my situation. I apologize to any friends reading this who might be bothered by a certain frankness in some of the items, but this is where I am now. I have been feeling a little depressed & frustrated & resentful & regretful over the last few days. One way I deal with these states of mind / body is to write about them.


Dealing with It

This second round of chemotherapy is not uncomfortable so far, the only pronounced side-effect being a pervasive sleepiness that leaves me unable to do much more than listen to audiobooks. (Have been listening to Andrea Wulf’s magisterial The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, which I found endlessly fascinating.) I remember the sleepiness from my first round of chemo & in comparison with that round this one has been pretty easy so far; but persistent sleepiness, while pleasant enough at first, gets pretty boring after a few days. I’ll open my laptop with the idea of writing something & ten minutes later wake up staring at the screen, mouse still gripped in my right hand. I am missing that manic phase a few weeks ago where I wrote a long poem & revised many others, wrote long blog entries, etc. etc. Now all I can manage are these little squibs. I like to think my body is putting all its energy into dealing with cancer cells & doesn’t have the reserves left over for intellectual activity–or is that just fanciful? Probably. Feeling a bit more alert this afternoon, so maybe this is a phase to be passed through. I would like to get back to doing some creative work, which is the one thing, really, that makes my situation tolerable. I’m really not interested in distractions, these days. I want to be working or sleeping, basically, with the two of them balanced in some kind of homeostasis. That & talking to friends give me a sense of well-being, the feeling, perhaps an illusion, that I have some control over my situation.

And what is my situation? I’ve used the word half-a-dozen time above & it could, I realize, begin to sound like a euphemism for having cancer–an avoidance of the harder language. Actually, it’s a term of art in Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophy that means something like “the human condition applied one case at a time”–it is always particular, never general. So my situation is having cancer, but also of being able to do a large number of things not directly involved with my diagnosis & associated disability, especially my lack of easy mobility. I won’t say that every trip to the kitchen or bathroom is a struggle, but every trip involves a walker & the inability to carry objects easily from one place to another. I use the walker because there is pain in my hip, but if it were only pain I would not use the walker; the pain is a signal of weakness & lets me know I cannot trust those particular muscles to support the weight of the left side of my body. (I’m sorry if this much description seems self-pitying–perhaps it is–but I indulge the descriptive language in an attempt to set out a phenomenological understanding of just what my situation is–to be clear about it.)1

Continuing to use Sartre’s language, one must pay attention to one’s situation in order to keep from falling into “bad faith,” or merely playing a game with one’s situation. Sartre’s humorous example of bad faith is the supercilious French waiter with his stiff yet condescending manners & neatly balanced tray falling into the game of pretending to be a supercilious French Waiter. In Zen, we often talk about acting spontaneously. Acting spontaneously, one cannot fall into bad faith; but to back up one micron from spontaneous action is to plunge headlong into bad faith. My sickness has made me acutely aware of the ease with which my situation can lead to bad faith–to being The Perfect Zen student, or the Good Patient, or any kind of exemplary role. So, I can be a Zen student, or a patient, or a grumpy old man, just so long as I am owning that identity at that moment. Aside: From the patient’s perspective, it is very, very easy to see which of the medical staff is acting in good faith & which not. So obvious as to be comical.

Enough existentialist navel-gazing for one afternoon. In some of these posts it feels as if I just keep circling the same set of irresolvables without being able to dive into the center of what becomes not much more than a semantic tangle. Well, that’s what we language-heads do! [Throws up hands in mock disgust, the laughs–ironically?]

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  1. Ironically, such attempts at clarity often lead to twisted syntax & clotted meanings, with footnotes appended to parenthetical expressions. Language does not map directly or easily onto experience & often must be tricked into doing any mapping at all.

Having a Breezy Day

Sunny, warm, breezy. Sitting on the deck with the dogs & wondering if they enjoy the feeling of the breeze ruffling their fur as much as I enjoy feeling it on my neck & the back of my head. Maybe it’s a little ozone coming off the river & the maple leaves, but it can feel almost transcendent.

I’ve always like the word breeze as well as the phenomenon it denotes–quasi-otomattopoetic, I’d have thought it of fairly recent origin, but the first entry in the OED tells me it goes back to Anglo-Saxon. What’s more, the first definition, though now marks archaic, is entirely unrelated to any kind of wind: “. . . a name given to various dipterous insects, esp. of the genera Œstrus (botfly n.) and Tabanus, which annoy horses and cattle.” Not very nice, that. It’s only in the 16th century that the second definition emerges, and it is more specific that the sense in which we now use the word: “A north or north-east wind; spec. applied within the tropics to the NE. trade-wind.” A quite specific sort of wind. In fact, my “breeze” today is blowing from the north-east to the south-west.

Daylight Half Moon

There is a daylight half moon this evening that will be waxing toward full over the next twelve days or so. It reached its highest point tonight around 7:30, which means that tomorrow evening I’ll see it there around 8:20. This will be the third lunar month I’ve watched since my diagnosis. (Oddly, my chemotherapy drug comes in twenty-eight doses.) This is the third lunar month I’ve been lying beside this window overlooking the river & when I began the robins were just establishing territories & building nests; tonight the juveniles are skittering among the lower branches while up above their elders sing their evening songs.

A Teaching Career (Coda: Zen)

I didn’t mention my relatively recent conversion1  to Zen in the previous parts of this account because, going back to the San Diego days at least, I knew a little bit about “cultural zen,” or “literary Zen” & had even tried to meditate a bit in order to address long-running problems with anxiety. But lacking a teacher or even a context, my approach to Zen remained theoretical.

But after I quit drinking a second time ten or eleven years ago, I still needed to deal with massive waves of anxiety. Funny thing about anxiety of this sort is that one is not anxious about anything in particular–that is, the anxiety is not a reaction to some particular event or situation; instead, the anxiety precedes particular events & simply attaches to this or that particular as necessary, though often enough it remains unattached to particulars, resulting in states of derealization. In my case, certain antidepressant medications helped to address this, but nothing was as effective as beginning a meditation practice that involved sitting up to two hours a day. At this point I was using Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s books on mindfulness as guides. For a while, I thought I could be a solitary practitioner, but the more I read & the more I sat, the more it seemed I needed an institutional context. That’s when I began looking around on the internet for a Buddhist group to join.

In the background of this search was my knowledge, however intellectual, of Vietnamese Buddhism as lived & practiced by the people I had lived among off & on since the mid-1990s, when I first traveled to Vietnam. I was attracted to the aesthetics of the liturgy & ritual practices, which seemed deeply integrated into the daily life of the Vietnamese in a way that I had never seen with Christianity in the US. I had been raised by fundamentalists, but had happily & mostly without trauma left it behind when I graduated from high school & went off to college. Even though I had tried as a kid to “believe,” Christianity as I saw it practiced was never as real to me as the “foreign” religion I saw practiced in Vietnam.

It did not actually take me long to settle on long to settle on the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen, partly because it was reasonably close to home, partly because it seemed welcoming, but mostly because of the founder’s emphasis on the arts as an important part of Buddhist practice. This is not the place to go into detail about the Order where I have now been a formal student for four years, so I’ll just comment that the impact on my life & teaching were almost immediate. No doubt that for a while I exhibited the annoying habits of a recent convert among my friends & colleagues–another example of my hard-wired enthusiasm, I guess. As for teaching, I think the main shift that becoming a Buddhist precipitated was that it gave me a more spacious sense of time, especially in the classroom, where, I realized, there was always the right amount of time, if one could only find the right clock. I slowed down & fit more in. I forgot, even more than usual, the impression I was making & focused on the ten-thousand things of a particular class period.

That phenomenon in the classroom–of time expanding to encompass whatever really needs to be accomplished–can be generalized & applied anywhere. It is perhaps the practical essence of Zen. Surely, may final years in the classroom were made more spacious by my Zen practice, as my life continues to be. Indeed, I cannot think how I would go about understanding my current illness without my Zen practice–not Zen as an institution, just my day to day understanding of what presents itself before me, including even pain & boredom. To say nothing of the satisfactions I have been finding in my recent writing. My Zen practice needs to be big enough to encompass the whole spectrum, which only practice will accomplish. How’s that for a Zen tautology? I tell ya, I got a million of ’em!

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  1. It was nothing less than a conversion experiences & Zen is not mere philosophy, but religion.