Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Boob the Star

I’m alive, nourished by prayer and a gentle surgeon’s hands.

The day began before dawn in the rain. Dramas in my life are often washed clean by rainstorms. A cold front was pushing through like Yao Ming for a basket. I felt calm, so calm, my blood pressure was low. I hired a car to take me to Baptist East, so my children wouldn’t have to make the long haul to my house. It was a quick trip at 6 a.m. on slick streets. The Women’s Center was dark when I arrived at 6:15. My appointment was at 7. I’m always early, a habit bred in me by my father who believed an hour scheduled was the hour one should be there and not waste other’s time. It’s a good habit, not much appreciated.

A surprise was waiting inside the electronic doors: my son, looking sharp in his business suit and with a vente Starbucks latte in his hands (oops, Mom, I forgot you couldn’t have one). He too is an early bird (every day at work) and so we found two chairs and relaxed until the Women’s Center opened at 6:45. The hardest part about all this was NO WATER to drink. Maybe this is why God sent the rain. I didn’t feel as dry as I would have. Not eating since 8 the night before was already easy since each morning at the spa when we left for the morning hike, we waited for breakfast on the return about 7:30. But water? It’s the only liquid I drink if there are no fresh squeezed juices.

The nurse had been adamant about water, so I dealt with the morning crud (post nasal drip stuff), and the onion bread I stuffed down at dinner still hanging around, it seemed. The cell phone rang at this hour. Many called. People I love. My daughter in Nashville. Lopez, who is my partner in working with juvenile delinquents. Emails were downloading. Prayer had started. I felt surrounded by a strong horizontal spring. A wooden hand cross, a gift from Pat Tigrett, was in my purse. And prayer beads. But I didn’t need objects. I had God in my heart.

My daughter arrived, and so the three of us were first in the waiting room. Then the wife of one of my favorite persons (He runs a Drop In Center for homeless addicts) was having her annual mammogram. It’s like going to the grocery store, nowadays, when I go to the women’s center. I see so many friends, so many people I know dressed in that white robe and bring knitting, books, paperwork, for the long wait. They called me for my insurance card (every time). Soon I was led back to the inner sanctum waiting rooms. I was to have another ultrasound as the doctoress inserted a path for the surgeon to my Golgotha. After deadening the boob (a prick similar to having blood drawn), some plastic wires were pushed where the cancerous tumor rested. Had it grown any? No, it’s the same. Then another injection at my lymph nodes put some sort of magnetic particles in a sort of dye to identify the node to be removed for testing. Today, my boob was the star. Alas, I had to have a set of two more mammograms to have a photograph of all the instruments included to guide the surgeon.

Why do I call it a boob? I’m 68. When I was raised, there were unacceptable words - sex, vagina, clitorus, womb, breast, urine, bowels, ass - words related to questionable parts of the body as if we should be ashamed of them. Thanks to the women’s movement, we can employ this language today. But I’m still shy of it. At one point a Mother approved word for breast was bosom. Somehow, I condense all that into a boob. It hangs, it excites, it’s the best machine for nourishing babies, large ones (Men like) give us more form than many of us want - as we seek contraptions that are comfortable but snazzy in order to hold them up or, in the sixties, in a point like Marilyn Monre, or round like Denise Darcel - remember her? But if you have flat ones, women feel short-changed giving a certain kind of surgeon reasons to insert implants, make larger. Flat boobs are better for super athletes whose exercises make muscles of what for most of us are fat carriers of milk glands. They can also be harbingers of cancers and death.

As the first procedure ended, the doctor signed my boob so the surgeon knew she had accomplished her assignment. Sign my boob? This could be a trend. Each stage of the way someone signed the left boob. Even I had to initial it to agree that yes, this boob was the one. Maybe this could be a trend. I’m sure teens get rock stars to sign much worse than that. I have a little red heart on my left boob. No one questioned why, thinking it was a temporary tattoo for Valentine’s Day. (Already?)

I re-dressed (no bra this time) to leave the Women’s Center and there were complications. In the hall, I saw my surgeon en route to the out-patient surgery center. He said I was second in line. Although I had blood drawn the day before, there was more needed so quickly I was walked to the lab in the Women’s Center, blood was drawn, and after signing more papers, we were taken to the doors of the hospital to wait for the shuttle to take us one building over. I kept insisting I could walk. Not in the rain, they said. Ridiculous waste of gas. The driver didn’t even know where we were going. But at the surgery center, - show insurance card and driver’s license, pay 90 dollars co-share or something like that, they take Visa - I was quickly taken in for prepping. Leave anything metal with your daughter. I had already left jewelry I wear all the time at home. But I reluctantly slid off my thin wedding ring which I always wear even though I’m not married now. I commented the docotr had just inserted metal magnets in my boob. That didn’t count. No, my daughter had to wait outside until I was prepped.

In little dressing rooms, no mirrors, take off all your clothes, put on this robe and tie it in the back.. In the back? It’s not my butt that’s of concern, it’s the boob. "They’ll pull the robe off the shoulders when needed." They need to invent robes made up of tie-able pieces. I tied the back so as not to expose my butt, as if anyone was interested. What I hated most - and maybe what made me realize this all was going to happen, was to put that flimsy shower cap over my hair. I hate shower caps (even swimming caps.) I shivered for a moment and then got back in control, praying the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Marys all the way. In the prep room that’s so full of machinery and curtain cut offs that it’s not worth looking at in detail, I crawled on bed One. Once again the questions - who am I (look at the Id bracelet), what is being doing to me today, who is my doctor, which breast (I wanted to say you can tell by all the autographs.). Are you allergic to anything? Not that I know of. At some point I got a couple more autographs on it. Indelible ink? I asked. No, you can wash it off with alcohol. (Alcohol? Need to buy a bottle.) I could hear people commenting on the strong rains outside. Ahh. What peace that brought. I would have been happy with rain drops on my head.

Since I have no primary doctor (just plenty of specialists to visit), and I don’t know when the last EKG took place or where (probably in Uruguay or Jackson Hole), they needed to take a electrocardiogram . Boy those are much faster than they used to be. The first showed movement. Had to tape up again. This was better. Have you ever had heart problems or high blood pressure? No. I had unhappy thoughts something could be wrong and stop this procedure which I was so ready to endure. They rigged up my right arm (I had blood taken twice in 24 hours in my left one) for the anesthesia and I guess to have a ready-made hole in case some sort of emergency happened and they needed to put in life-saving whatever. My daughter was allowed to come in but it was the exact moment they were ready to roll me off. I love you Mom. I love you honey. A little tear squeezed out my eye because I do love my children so much. And they rolled me into the surgery room.

Now I felt a pang of fear. Could God get through all this metal? Was this a way to keep Him out and lock science in? I knew the place was surrounded with prayer. I think the idea someone cared is much stronger than metal. All those giant round lights (Normally I’m comfortable in a spotlight - a holdover of my theatrical days) and people in blue masks and scrubs. Shift onto a skinny bed. Thank God I was fit. There was no extra space. Once again the questions as they put the sleep juice (Ha Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) into my veins, I asked, have you started? Yes, you’ll be asleep in a minute. I said, I want to bless each of you. It counts. I’m an Anglican deacon-priest - Pow. I didn’t know I was gone. Next thing I knew I was really groggy but felt I was continuing the conversation I had left off with.

A nurse said, it’s over. You are in recovery. It’s over? I didn’t even get a good dream in. I don’t know how long the operation took. Less than an hour. Most of the time the doctor said was waiting for test results while the operation is in progress. I started rambling until I realized my mouth was stuck together. Please, may I have water now? (That was the worst part of all this.) Yes. She gave me ginger ale at first, then water. And I couldn’t get enough. I felt pretty dud-dy. Not like I could get up and do a treadmill. I could also feel my boob had been danced on. I had been given pain pills. I had to hang in there for thirty-five minutes oblivious to what was going through my mind. The surgeon peeped in, I think, and said the initial tests of the nodule were negative. That’s brilliant news. I do remember wondering if my guide Jim Williams had made it to the summit he was tackling in South America.

When I was allowed to get in the exit wheel chair (I can do it myself, thank you), I was rolled out to the car where my daughter rescued me from the hospital moment. We went to Subway so she could get a bite to eat, (It was 1 p.m.) and I could get ice water and a chocolate chip cookie. (Well, what do you want?) And I had placed a bag of home-made health gorp in my purse, and my morning pills (which I wasn’t able to take prior to operation), so I quickly gained energy. It was raining still, but lighter. And strong wind gushes made driving something you had to work at. We picked up the prescription for pain pills. But I can happily say, I’ve not had to take a single one. I wouldn’t know anything had happened to my boob, except I’m walking around even climbing flights of stairs without a bra and there are band-aids and autographs all over it. Home and my well-pillowed bed were the best refuge. Novella, with her healing powers, dropped by to anoint me. The sun burst through the clouds, but winds were violent outside, and that means my house shakes. My daughter got a bit nauseated on the third floor and went down to the more solid first floor to sleep.
Photo: Novella and her healing powers

I did find out what happens to removed tumors. They are kept forever. They might be used for further testing, or if some new invention allows doctors to have more information, in other wise, my tumor has a future. And so do I. God bless you all for praying me through this moment.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Day Before

Flying into Memphis last night the city lit up in bright Tennessee orange as the M bridge pointed the way across the Mississippi to the airport, where I waited a half hour to get one bag. At least I got it. I felt relieved to be on home soil so there’d be no hitch in the next two day schedules.
I was up and gone on a fasting stomach by 6:30 today - driving in rush hour traffic to get to the hospital (25 minutes on the freeway) for blood work, which took a minute. And I dashed out of there to get my light coffee frappachino (ten minutes away) - probably the unhealthiest thing I could do - and a light blueberry coffee cake. Yum.
For some reason, I spent the rest of the morning in my kitchen playing with food: cutting up yellow fruits - peaches, mangos, cantaloupe; cooking broccoli; and making 20 baggies of Gorp as Wendy Bazilian, the nutritionist at the Golden Door, had suggested - mixing roasted almonds and pecans, yoghurt covered peanuts, pumpkin seeds, other seeds, various kinds of raisins, cranraisins, and other dried fruits, and dark chocolate chips in big grocery bags, and putting them by cupfuls into each baggy. Then I found cookies I had stored in a corner of the freezer. Oh well. Healthy eating is seasonal. It’s cold here today and bridges have remnants of salt sprinkled over them in a frosty spell last week.

Am I worried about tomorrow? No. I am so up for whatever happens tomorrow, that if they said there was nothing to do, I’d probably be upset. I want to go through it and share it with others who might have the same experience booked. Maybe this is my Job moment. But I have no doubts that whatever happens, God has me in his hands, and I like his hands. They are held by loving friends.

I am really excited that my three children are going to take turns "taking care of" me. I’m not a patient patient, and will revel in the moment and not to be too instructive. Each one has a night or two. I will adore their attention but I really don’t expect to be an invalid or that I won’t be able to do normal things in twenty-four hours. The tumor is in the left boob, so the right side can do it’s normal work. I guess I have to watch out for the nodule they take out to make sure the scene is clean. That takes longer to heal.

I stopped by Calvary Church and my priest Andy anointed and laid hands on me. Then I mailed bills, wrote emails, answered emails, and drove back in town to hug two of my grandchildren - the youngest of my seven, Henry and Caroline. When I walked in the door, Henry grinned around his pacifier and jumped up and down in his entertainment jumper. Caroline curled up in a ball and giggled as I asked her about her day in school. She drew a portrait of the family - round heads, major eyes, and stick legs and arms. She was the biggest form because she is a "big girl." Both of them, as all my grandchildren, put light in my heart.
But the highlight of the day was a phone call on my cell while I was driving back home at dusk. My friend and mountain guide Jim Williams was speaking through a satellite phone at 19,000 feet on a crater edge in Chile or Bolivia (I don’t know which side - this mountain posed in the view from my window when I was in the Atacama Desert in Chile. ) He said his group was summiting tomorrow - and he knew I was climbing an obstacle tomorrow as well and he was holding me up in spirit and would stop by on his way back to Wyoming. I’m most excited about the April-May trek to Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan where I’ll learn new cultures and meet new people as well as see some of the most beautiful places in the world. This is what keeps my energy up - knowing my task is to keep fit through walking, pilates and gym in the days to come, even when the radiation weakens me, I cannot get down and out.

I want to make it clear, I’m not sick. I’m healthier than I have ever been in my life. I have just been invaded by something I don’t know and, through the help of a gentle surgeon and a staff of warm and helpful people, we are going to pull it out like a pearl from an oyster and smash it to bits. Actually, trying to figure out that image, I began wondering, where do removed tumors really go?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Getting Real With the Real

They call it Spa Brain. It’s hard to get outside your self after being so into yourself trying to improve the ruffles and rumps to turn yourself from a biscuit into a rock. Walk outside the bronze golden doors at dawn as the skies throw down cauldrons of much needed rain and not so needed winds and the world turns. Once my luggage (one bag) and carry on were settled, the driver ( a New Zealander) began asking questions to fire up some sort of chatter, and all I did was a Harrumph. I wanted to read Eat, Pray, Love since everyone insisted I do that since those three words reflect the active verbs of my life (add laugh.) So I hugged myself into the corner of the back seat as the driver promised to get me to the airport in LA in an hour and a half. That would be "fabulous", to use a California word, and a half hour sooner than planned. The heavily forecasted floods of rain and wind seemed to dissipate - and the blue sky worked it’s way through like a ball on a pinball machine.

Quickly my mind flashed back to DeeJay in our Tai Chi class. The things that push your buttons are You, not other people. Swallow it. Let it Go. See what is about you that allows you such irritation, anger, impatience, negativity. The other person - whom you blame for disturbing your suave mental state, jumping on your unreality - is not the cause of your harrumph. So I took a deep breath and realized Dee Jay had been for me a real Guru, (I didn’t have to go to an India Ashram) bringing me from darkness to light in a week of Tai Chi and Qi Gong and meditation walks so that I can keep my blood pressure at a good level and not judge other people who stir me up. It’s not an easy assignment. We like judging because we like control, to issue opinions and have it be accepted, to have it our way as we get back at the tigers growling at us. I must honor the place in you as well as the place in me so we can all be in this thing together. This question about life, this answer about life, this result of life they are hanging in front of me like oranges on its tree.

Each week at the door, there is a final celebration dinner. Many of the guests have already been released back in the world mess and TV news. But those of us still hanging in until Sunday morn put our white Japanese kimono robes (cotton) over our thinner clothes, while still comfortable in cross-training footwear, and toast good thoughts with real wine. Some guests order a case of California’s wealth from the great outside (I just wanted Godiva chocolate pearls) and pass a happy night with new friends from as far as Hawaii, Montreal and New Hampshire. Five awards (recognition certificates) are given out with tongue in cheek to guests who got the attention of the fitness crew. I was stunned that I had been chosen G.I. Jane of the week because I never tired in my exercise exuberance. (Little did they know why I fell in bed at 7 every night.) And best, my friend Ginny won Muscle Mama from her weight lifting work in the gym. It put a humorous cap on a heady week when we were able to push ourselves beyond the edge and not fall off. For me, it was being in an environment where a few dozen women and staff cared that I was about to embark on the cancer train. And I know there’ll be so many giving me a spot of prayer Tuesday morning and the scalpel invades.
Photo: Ginny and I with our Golden Door awards

What a surprise today that there was no traffic jam on the LA freeways, even though my novice driver lost his way. (You live by Freeway numbers like 5, 91,110,405, 105 - the biggies while I can’t remember the two or three that cross Memphis.) What a surprise that check-in and security were a breeze (Don’t we all fear major airports like Los Angeles?) What a surprise - I ran to the Starbucks to coddle like gold a coffee light frapaccino and couldn’t resist the moist looking key lime crumb coffee cake (They don’t have that in Memphis) . Well, just one won’t hurt after a week as a hungry skinny vegetarian on 1100 calories per day and pounding off about 1000 extra calories per day. Now if I can just get in control, center my spirit on my core, do a few facial exercises (one you imitate a frog, and another move Groucho Marx) and breathe the not so healthy air deep into my abdomen I can soar.

Rainbow Speaks

Of all the moments of memory from this week at The Golden Door, none equals the meditation hike. It’s a Thursday event usually for students in the Tai Chi classes given by DeeJay, the calmest spirit I’ve ever met, who blends Eastern meditation and Christian centering into a puree of love.
After we learned a series of Tai Chi movements where we part the horses main, released the swallow, stretched the crane’s neck, fed the tiger, held the lotus and other symbolic hand dances and defense sequences, we were invited on this special hike at 6:15 which aims for the top of a small mountain where impressive boulders hang out. We were warned that it would be a slow advance in silence, giving us an opportunity to observe what happens around us, hear what resonates at dawn, and see a place that is never the same. We didn’t realize in advance that this would be one of the extraordinary moments of midwinter fragranted by rain.

The rains had rumbled all night long on our habitat roofs. Drops hung on nandina bushes full of berries, and on pine spines like balls of crystal ready to drop but holding on a bit longer til the sun arrived. The fields and mountain paths were rich with greens. It was a Haiku moment. At dawn anything white spins out in fluorescence, and as soon as light began to add color to the fields, it was the spring greens that glowed with odors of fresh moist soil. A full moon watched us finish stretching exercises - reaching our left hands high in the air to pick imaginary grapes, bring them to our mouth, then scrunching up our faces (an exercise) because they were sour. With our backpacks filled with a minor breakfast (hard boiled egg, yoghurt, blueberries, and, surprise, a tiny blueberry muffin), and trusty rain slickers covering our shoulders - just in case - we hiked in a silence that competed with a crowing cock, traffic on the freeway, and birds testing their vocals like opera singers before a show.

I stopped ever so often to photograph the round moon still lingering and moving in and out of portentous clouds. When we arrived easily at the plateau where we were to find a boulder to sit on, and then join Dee Jay in a Tai Chi movement moment in silence, the skies sang arias of color, ominous with rain coming across the valley, but so extraordinary because rain is uncommon in this part of Southern California, that a triple rainbow grew from one mountain side to the other, arching over the Golden Door property, and giving those of us who find messages in rainbow appearances an extraordinary poetic moment. To me, the rainbow is God saying to me, you are okay, you are on the right road, everything is going to be all right.
As we spread a neck towel on a boulder to open our backpacks, having given audience to God through prayer, Dee Jay gave a hand signal that we needed to leave and go back down the mountain. The storm was creeping up on us. And as we began our descent, it joined us on the downlow, pattering on our slickers, and dampening the dirt path. But the rainbow, and the still present moon, gave us too much pause when we should have been heading shelter. What’s a little rain, we felt, in this amazing stage of lighttransforming night to day to shower. Instead of walking the labyrinth as would normally occur once back down at the "Door", we headed for shelter in the dining room and opened our back packs before a freshly made fire. And three of us spent an hour talking about the experience on the walk, reluctant to break off from it to rejoin the many other guests already kicking leg
s and moving arms high for the best aerobic effects in a dance class.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Opening the Golden Door

At 5:15, the phone rings. No one is on the other end of the line. It’s the wakeup machine. Time to get dressed for the moderate hike which launches the daily menu at the Golden Door Spa. The three mile moderate is one of a number of hikes. Believe you me, there is nothing moderate about it for someone my age. On Wednesdays another more challenging mile is added And it’s raining and cold and pitch black dark. (For this tiny flashlights are provided.) I didn’t know it was to rain (no weathermen prompters, no TV), so I didn’t have on my rain slicker. The moon flashed by a dark cloud but daylight stalled somewhere over there where I don’t know.

Hikers meet in what I call the re-start room - there is lemonade, ice tea, and hot coffee - even tiny tiny triangles of a fruit bread offered only at this hour. One slice is allowed. No one turns on the only television. Too many were mourning the results of Sunday championship football. (Yes, women get upset too.) The staff leader signed to shepherd us opens the door and with a high school girl enthusiasm a bit sickening at this hour, cheers us on to get started. We exit the building and immediately spend minutes stretching quads, glutes, ankles, whatever pains, at the end of which we are given a quote for the day. "Courage is the power to let go of the familiar."

And the rains came in serious. Rain in California. Golly Gee, who’d have suspected it. Undaunted, my friend Ginny and I leapt onto the muddy path at a pace, sort of middle of the pack, and we reported on minor communications with the outside world and our daily schedules. (This is my fifth visit, her first.) We followed directional pink arrows on the ground that have pictures of quail on them. That’s our route this morning, steep in places, downhill in places, and in some places reasonably flat. Our steam spent, as we walk under the Tora Gate, (signifying we are entering a spiritual place) we begin to think about getting back to the warmth of our room and that tray of breakfast waiting for each of us. Mine is a small bowl of oatmeal with chips of fruit. I’m on the serious dieters schedule.

There’s not much time to recoup, because at 8:15 is Tai Chi with DeeJay, who is an African American artist of movement and peace. He also teaches Qi Gong, and I had a private session with him to learn how to deal with the upcoming operation and radiation following. He showed me how to tap my lymph glands that go throughout the body, and how to visualize white and gold lights of healing in chakra areas. We have to admit doctors don’t heal our bodies. Our bodies heal our bodies. Sometimes they need assistance. But no one really knows where the force of healing begins and ends. So we lift our hands up to God and his schedule for us and accept it with an agreeable spirit and focus.

With breakfast each morning is a paper fan on which the daily schedule is written, beginning after the hikes, which are optional starts to many of our days.(Many sleep in.) Then my fan would be something like this: 8:15 Tai Chi; 9:00 Nia Dance (well, it’s graceful movement with a small rubber ball) or Baby Boomer DaVinci - a dance class to music of the 60s and 70s; 10:00 Total Body Workout (too much bouncing for me) or Fitball Sculpt (which means lifting weights while lying on the big white plastic ball); 10:50 a small cup of potassium broth and garden vegetables (all fresh) - take a breath ; 11:00 H2O CSI, or Agua Dumbbells, which is integrated exercise in the hardly heated pool; 12:00 meet with personal trainer in the gym or private Pilates on odd looking machines. Lunch is at one - and by 2 you are back on the road, wondering if you can make it through all this. My favorite class is Super Circuit in the new gym - that’s two minutes of cardio on either treadmill, bicycle or elliptical; intercepted by a minute and a half on each of 12 machines centering on various body strengths. The music is wild and gutsy and it pushes you on as your body pours out sweat and energy and you wonder why you are doing all this. It’s the best thing here for feeling you’ve pushed the edge.

So I begin to count up how many hours I’ve actually been exercising that day - I try to get in 5 or 6 per day. Full force. No slack. Even though I’m starving for chocolate chip cookies. Wouldn’t you? In the afternoon, however, is a bit of pampering, which I normally shy away from - but I’m going for it this trip - different kinds of facials or body scrubs, a Thai massage in your room. Then sneaks in an afternoon Calypso Dance (if you could see the moves of the teacher, you’d see miracle beads flying everywhere - I’ve taken her class four times over the years and STILL cannot move my butt with such bump.) If you’re at the end of your rope, you can sit in on meditation to reduce stress, make healing sounds by drumming, try Feldenkrais, listen to someone tell you How to Get Happy and write Haiku about the liquid amber trees standing like forlorn gray soldiers in the cold winter mist. At night, there are nutrition experts to discuss away your bad eating habits, and private acupuncture sessions, which I’m signed for as a way to help invigorate my immune system before surgery on Tuesday.

My friend Ginny had her hair styled today and looks beautiful. She is squeezing out moments between spa exercises to continue writing her dissertation for a PhD. While pondering that my midrift has not shrunk a centimeter (is this a problem of old age?), I’m trying to keep up my blog and aim to work on a collection of poems another special friend poet Claudia Rankine has critiqued to help me organize a viable manuscript with a theme. But my toes are frosty and I must stay wrapped in oversized sweaters and a sweat jacket that comes down to my knees, worrying if I’ll have time to organize two weeks worth of snack baggies of roasted nuts, dried fruit and dark M&Ms, when I get home, as the nutritionist suggested along with green tea and pomegranate juice.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

California Moments

Swans at the Bel Air Hotel
In my teen years, California was that raunchy state where questionable folk did unusual things with suntans and white teeth, where true stars of stage and screen, addicted to white attire and locked in by a studio system, romanced each other in exotic homes with tile roofs in Beverly Hills and resorts in Santa Barbara, where wealth was cool and Alcatraz was the prison system’s heartbeat. In those days, the wealth of Hearst or Crockett or Hughes was rare and oil burned pocketbooks with untethered glamour. The only names to drop in fashion were from the east coast. Wardrobe designers on film sets were not of the same ilk although a few had known signatures (Edith Head) and in California bums were lucky because they could hang out on the beach, thumb rides and be beatnik poets at the City Light bookstore or flower children in Haight-Ashbury.
Deep South parents rarely shipped daughters to California by plane, train, or convertible and Stanford, though the best university, was too liberal with advanced thinkers. (Most of us had to be educated at all girl's schools, sent away to boarding school in Virginia, where proper English was taught.) Yet the political lock-in was conservative while homosexuality flourished on San Francisco cable cars and Asian dim sum grew in popularity. I’m talking about the West Coast of the ‘40ties and 50ties. The saving grace was the opening of Disneyland. There was nothing kinky about Walt Disney or Mickey Mouse.

When I moved from Memphis to Montecito in 1984, tired of living inland, wanting to know life on the ocean, my father washed his hands of me. Few thought my removal from a protected and conformative environment was a smart move on my part, but it saved my life. It began my independence (at 43). I no longer had to worry about whom I was seen with, what I said or hung on my walls, if the hedge around my house was trimmed, or my car looked disorderly or my dogs became vagrants in horse pastures. In California, although you had to pay eleven per cent taxes on your income, no one knew who I was and my life with my Uruguayan husband Sergio began in 1984 after a simple wedding ceremony in front of our black tiled swimming pool for which I wore a white jumpsuit, a tuberose corona and Sergio wore a white suit. We were married in Spanish in the presence of a judge and close California friends (a professional soccer player from Chile, a highly respected and loved ceramic funk artist and his wife, a California art dealer with whom I’m still great friends and her husband, and a young gay man who housesat for us when we traveled and still checks in on me today.) We also had three hairy Shitzu puppies who took up most of our kingsized bed. This was my California surfin, arms length from great art and artists and museums, and, by Jove, I loved the food, the view across the Pacific at Catalina Islands, the year round flowers and our small orchard of Vitamin C fruits. There was an enormous avocado tree embracing the entrance. I even learned to make guacamole.
A Glimpse of the Bel-Air Hotel
Years have passed since my three year abode in Montecito but I return annually, diving into the smog and fog of Los Angeles and points south. This will be my fifth trip to the Golden Door Spa. And I have no idea how many trips to the Beverly Hot Springs Day Spa where Filipino women beat clients into shape and tenderize the skin’s soul after dips into thermal pools of water from the La Brea Tar Pits. (Remember, the dinosaur footprints are in those pits.) The sounds of steamy waterfalls and gurgling hot vapors from 2000 feet under the spa add to this fascinating afternoon of being scrubbed down like a horse, doused in hot water (poured out of a bucket on to your unsuspecting body) and slathered in aromatic creams that range in smell from fishy-cucumber; honey and yoghurt, and to finally just plain milk. Milk is good for you, my bather says, as she giggles and turns a hose on me. As I left, refurbished, there was a full moon like white cheese over the city.
After a late visit to Fred Segal’s store, my cheerful friend Aviva, a jewelry designer, joined me for the eight course tasting meal at Matsuhisa, the original restaurant founded by Nobu which I visit every time I go to LA. Once I was fortunate enough to eat a sushi spread cooked by Nobu himself. Tonight it was an omakasi in which we consumed, like impressed art
PHOTO: left, Kegani; right With Aviva
critics, toro (fine tuna) tartar with caviar, Kumamoto oysters, Kinme-Dai (fish) in dried miso, karpachi, sliced scallops, orange clams, sardine tempura, kegani or spiny crab (ugly thing to look at), eel, yellow tail, squid - this is the real thing about Japanese meals - small helpings, big selections. Think I got enough protein?

Home Base for two nights in Los Angeles has always been my favorite hotel in the world. I’ve staying at the Bel Air since the early ‘70ties. It’s a garden paradise cusped this weekend in the grasp of freezing weather, so much so that steam rose from the swimming pools. I’ve watched the hotel changed owners many times, the goodies in the frigo-bar in the room are completely different and they don’t leave chocolate on the pillow at night, but still they greet me by name, still the blood red camellias bloom and bougainvilleas lounge across rambling one story pink and white suites, gardens stretch left and right and in squares that you dare to peak in, still crooked trees and palms rise into the air to hold green lights that add night drama to patios, and mostly there is peace, a peace that allows white swans to float in regal pairs. There is a security in returning to good things.

Photo left: Swan butter for Bel Air Breakfast

Los Angeles today is the city of facelifts, botox and men who look like soap studs. People need to walk, talk and look gorgeous here. Starlets in flimsy dresses with bra straps hanging wander down Rodeo Drive in heels so high they distort the foot, lugging exotic purses so accessorized they look like telephone linemen and they peek into Prada, Max Mara, Frette, Barneys, Royal Order, MikiMoto (have you ever seen golden pearls?) Theodores, all those many high end shops where one wanders around and touches something, but can’t afford the overstuffed prices. On this splendid day of crystal sun, cool breeze, and immaculate streets, (this is why California residents suffer the risk of earthquake wakes, fire broils, gang wars and Britney Spears) one can feel, for a moment, like a star and carry her shopping bags -more than one, of course - with big name designers printed on the side to show you can do it as well as the best of them, that is to shop. If you can have a licorice limo open its door for you in front of Tiffany’s or Cartiers all the better. Enjoy the moment.

Photo: Sitting on Prada stairs with my bags

Friday, January 18, 2008

And That's The Truth

The large mustard colored envelope was bulky with cancer: all kinds of pamphlets and booklets about the myths and facts of the disease and how my life now begins from zero (this is the first day of whatever life I have left) as I join a new sorority of women struggling to be able to say they are cancer survivors. Forget about old habits, now the calendar is blank and complicated. The most painful booklet is about radiation which I must live with for six weeks. It discusses the extreme possibilities of all kinds of radiation - which you can’t help but read - and then you have those images in your head and know they are going to flash around like search lights in the night. Get thee behind me Negativity.

Burn my boob? Side effects are the hairy part, if you have hair. In radiation you don’t think hair will fall out, that’s the dark side of chemo. But the state of the crown reigns high in most women’s worries - think of all the monies spent at beauty shops hiding the grey, streaking the blonds, curling the straight, straightening the curl, and blow drying the superduper new cut. (I’ve been blessed not to have to do any of those alterations but get a haircut. )

About a decade ago when I was chaplain of the British-American hospital in Montevideo, I attended many wonderful women enduring chemo and radiation and the lifelessness cancer causes. I had long white hair at that time, but the women I visited were bald. I’ve always felt no matter how ugly, fat, gross I looked, my snowy hair was the thing that carried me through. It was more me than me. Imagine losing that. Imagine. I did and so immediately had my hair cut short and have worn it that way ever since. No, I haven’t shave it like female singers Sinead O’Connor and Meshell Ndegeocello or like gorgeous Senegalese or Ghanaian or Masai women I met in my travels there in the ‘60ties. Those inspirational women wrapped themselves in colorful swags of patterned cotton fabric and tied toddlers onto their backs with same and even left their breast exposed. Hmm. I haven’t been that bold but times a coming if I have to expose my breast to the air every day during radiation. (That’s private air, not public, pleeeze.) As to the value of hair, I like having something on my head to grab and twist in my fingers when in deep thought, as if that was a sign of a brain working.(Note when I googled shaved headed women singers, the results were mostly Britney Spears. I forgot about her shenanigans. She sort of denigrated the idea of shaved heads. Alas.)

Breast radiation is not a hair loss promise. It’s fairly direct and doesn’t drool off into other sectors of the body. What is supposed is tiredness. I must have the courage to say I’m tired, gonna take a nap, can’t run for that corner shot. I must listen to/coddle my body, I’m told. I haven’t been very good at that. (Lots of time my body says "sit around" but I know it’s just lazy and trying to get out of exercise.) But there is one guaranteed side effect - my skin will get dry, scaley, burned as if by the sun, and it won’t be fun in water. And there is a chance I’ll lose weight from diarrhea etc from the medicines (Holy Hannah! Hurrah!). I must eat protein (fun for a vegetarian) and drink boucoups of water and liquid (I do that anyway.) Now all this is anticipatory vis a vis the publications informing me of what to expect.

I would love to beat the odds, wouldn’t you? I’m aiming to try, to be able to continue the ball work, the elliptical (I almost fall off that even NOT nuked) and to run up the 84 steps from the park to the top of the bluffs when I finish the river walk. Well, I may have to hold on to the rail. I have to remember I’m 68, Will I be chicken when wind chill factor is zero? Memphis can get blustery at times.

I’m not taking all this without a punch back. Tomorrow I go to Los Angeles to visit friends (flower design producers who do Hollywood and the Oscar’s grandest fiestas; a fabulous African American poet who became my friend last summer at Squaw Valley and is helping me with my poetry; a jewelry designer more upbeat than Hannah Montana, and the stocky Filipino women wrapped in towels at Beverly Hot Springs Day Spa who’ll beat on me, shiatsu me, and then scrub me until I’m another shade of white, followed by cream baths (you are stretched out on a rubber mat on a massage like table) and aromic warm waters - they wash your hair about a half dozen times as your head hangs off the mat, and you float and warm up in a thermal pool fed by miracle waters from La Brea Tar pits. I won’t pass up the eight course experience at Matsuhisa (the original Nobu restaurant in the world; once Nobu himself cooked when I was there) and a stroll through Prada’s open air store and Barneys, a favorite.

My destination, however, is the Golden Door health spa in southern California - where I’ll bond with a great friend for a week locked behind golden doors (true) wearing blue sweatsuits and taking mountain hikes at 5:30 each morning, tap dancing, kick boxing, and stretching until I’m a few inches taller, maybe. Last visit I was doing five hours of aerobics a day. I hope to equal that this time. I’m not intrigued by the pampering stuff like daily massages, although I have a paraffin wrap that cleanses your skin, and maybe a scrub. Best is you go to dinner in your blue and white Japanese robe and slippers and have tiny artwork painted on your big toenail by a Japanese pedicurist and reflexology specialist. Japanese flavored GD whips up spirits, bodies, and energies in such a magical way that you are refreshed and transformed and learn how to eat low calorie healthy. Plus you learn to daily sprinkle Flax on your cereal and a drop of Beano on your salad. Sigh.
Photo: Golden Door Dance Class

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Waiting for the New Menu

photo: Waiting for the Sun

Wall Street knows the agony of waiting to hear what’s going to happen next. Will stocks rise or crash? Will you win some or lose some: stay poor or get rich overnight? It’s worse than waiting for a hurricane to hit. How insecure can life get? Those are collective anticipations based on analysis, history, and weather currents. Waiting for Godot is a classic theatrical experience between two men who don't know what they are waiting for, but they wait anyway. Waiting to Exhale -well we do that on those horrific rides at Six Flags or Disney or Universal Studios. How many eager athletes must wait for the right moment to summit Everest? Sit. Sleep. Read. Breathe. We must learn to bide time creatively.

But waiting to hear what the menu of your life is going to be, based on a single unexpected avalanche, is tedious. Diversion is the key. Trust is the anchor. I kept my spirits up writing emails, hugging my grandbabies, eating poorly, reading the Times, feeding the homeless, and organizing photographs on my laptop. My room is a mess of books stacked like forgotten chimneys, a carpet of papers I need to peruse or at least put in order, and pillows. Half my bed is pillows.

Photo: Whomever waits for Godot, waits for me

(metal sculpture by Suzie Cochran)

I guess we all wait in different ways for the next thing to come. I don’t know how many of you are, like me, waiting for the days of heaven. Some preachers say we are living heaven on earth. I hope not. It's pretty awful. Nowadays. I don’t believe that earth is heaven although there are heavenly places on earth. But there's too much injustice, too much pain, too much hatred and violence. Heaven is that dulce adventure no one knows one thing about, so cannot describe or prejudice or forwarn. Heaven is the sweet pie of death. And I am going for lemon with lots of meringue. Hope of Heaven is part of my faith. Now my faith rocks with dreams. But I need to know some sort of schedule.

When you find out you have a breast tumor, there are lots of questions. Mine are mostly when can I exercise, will I be able to trek to the base camp of Everest and to Mt. Kailas in April and May, how far can I walk and what’s it going to be like. I loathe weakness of spirit and body in myself. And that might become me as I go through the cure. I was so anxious to meet the surgeon (I keep referring to him as the sculptor) that I arrived a half hour before his office even opened and sat on the floor in the hall until someone came with keys. Well, I was going to be squeezed in as it was. I had my frapucchino light and a book of travel stories in hand for the long haul. But it wasn’t long. And my surgeon has the manner of someone who should be in that golden circle before the throne of God. He soothes without seeming obvious and he explains step by step what is happening and going to happen. I don’t like medical drawings nor Xrays that tell me more than I care to know. But I’m learning to look at truth, even if it isn’t my kind of art.

My tumor developed from a milk gland - that occupy most women’s breasts. I commented I thought I had done all the right things, nursing my children forever, and having a no-hassle menopause. We don’t have breast cancer in my family but he said that didn’t matter. Most of the people he operates on are similar to me. So on January 29th he will cut out this tiny tumor (which glows on the Xray like some UFO because a little marker was placed in it during the biopsy ) from my mountain of a boob. (That’s what it looks like, a mountain on its side.) And he will take out a couple of lymph glands under my arm to make sure that is all the cancer present and because there are lymph nodes associated with tumors. (A dye will be injected prior to the operation, as will a path for the scalpel, much as the path for the gun that took out the samples during the biopsy.) After a couple weeks of healing - yes, I can start walking after a few days - but no weight lifting or tennis - then I will begin radiology. I had hoped to avoid this, but the doctor assured me radiation is the guarantee that the cancer is out of there. Okay, I’ll buy that. I can keep up a normal life, and, exercise and the Tibet-Nepal adventure is going to happen. All seems cool. I’m ready. First I'm spending ten days at a health and beauty spa in southern California. Oh well, why not. It's my favorite retreat.
During my weekend waiting, a tooth on a post fell out again, one that seems to fall out every quarter. I think my dentist needs a new kind of cement. I stopped by for a re-glue again after the surgeon appointment. My dentist's assistant told me she had been through the same thing. She is young, athletic, works hard. She had planned to leap into all this with gusto and continue her lifestyle, but she said by the third week of radiation, she began to fold up, worn out, she was pushing her body too hard while being nuked. She said the skin will burn and there are creams to help with that, and that most important is to spend as much time as possible with the breast exposed so the air can get to it and heal. (Oh to be on the French Riviera.)

Photo: Why Worry? Just Hang on!

Therefore, I need to be aware that at some point, I’m going to have to slow down. My friend Mr. Evans at Juvenile Court has long been fussing at me to slow down, slow down. I move too fast. Now he's winning the argument, bless him. I hope to at least keep walking. That’s the basis of the adventure in April. I guess I’ll have to measure days by strength. I will also be assigned an oncologist who will lead me through the aftermath, and so will Pam, my advocate nurse from the Women’s Health Center at the hospital. Friends are arriving all around, it's a pueblo of people who care and know a lot more than I do about survival. It’s amazing how many friends and acquaintances have been through these same doors. They become the experts to whom you want to keenly listen. It’s like working with researchers when writing a thesis. It’s the good part of having to go through this adventure.

Yesterday could not have been fresher, clearer, more agreeable weatherwise. I started the day deep breathing as Brandy smelled the weeds beside my house. I ended the day surrounded by friends at the board meeting for Division Chiefs of the Auxiliary Probation Officers. (I'm the only white member.) And I received an envelope from the first graders at my granddaughter’s school filled with thank you cards (for my talk on penguins and Antarctica) and exquisite drawings of Gentoo penguins which I plan to frame. (The kids adored the Gentoos more than other species.) My granddaughter, always creative, drew a pink hamster on hers. She knows how I feel about her hamster which runs on a wheel all night long when I’m visiting. Aaagh. But she adores that little beast.

As it is, life for me has long been a Roy de Forest painting, full of animals, interesting people, wild plants, and color. If you don’t know the work of this Northern California artist, google him. Many times a day I pass his work painted in a style every child of God's earth can understand. It makes me giggle and know there’s peace and answers for us all if we only know where to look.

photo: Roy's Last Work sent by his wife Gloria.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Big C Rains

I ran from the shower to answer the phone, pressing my left breast firmly against me so it wouldn’t jiggle. I was in the process of changing the band-aid.

It was charming Dr. Mize with the news that the blip was a tiny cancerous tumor. She immediately included the positive - we can fix this. It can be cut out - an out-patient maneuver. Probably without any chemical follow up. That’s what bothers me. I don’t want to be killed by the cure. She named a surgeon and confirmed that Pam, the new friend nurse assigned to walk me through all this strange world of breast cancer, would be calling in a breath. Don’t worry. You’ll be able to do the trek to Everest. Then, the conversation was over.

I immediately began to shiver. My teeth chattered. I don’t know why. I don’t feel worried or scared or cold. I expected a negative report, for some reason. So I dressed in my comfortable workout clothes (although I cannot exercise until Friday) and went down to get the newspaper in the cold morning air. My teeth continued to chatter. My body was warm. Then I noticed the Mississippi was blanketed in a low pastel fog, the M bridge hardly visible, but a fresh sunlight painted leafless winter trees golden. Day was moving in. Rain storms had evaporated.

Up at the usual 5:30 to let Brandy my half lab-half Husky out, I was being lazy today since I am prohibited from much physical activity. I worked on writing yesterday’s blog, repairing earlier blogs and adding photos, reading encouraging emails from friends, and responding to them while sitting in my favorite upholstered chair with ottoman watching the river roll on by as barges pushed uphill. I never stay in a nightgown past seven a.m. I start each day with granola and a shower. But today, I loosened my standards to accommodate the fact exercise was not on the menu. When I walked into the shower late, I noticed my sports bra showed a spot of blood, remnant of the biopsy. The band-aid was bloody, too, so I aggh pulled it off and found a fresh one. Nothing hurt intolerably nor looked red.

On TV the Today Show was obsessed with the election results in New Hampshire. There had been resurrections of sort. Hope is never lost.

After hearing the results, I tried to get in touch with my three children. No one was reachable. They are doing their lives, and for that I’m blessed. I don’t want them or anyone to stop everything or worry for me. I left messages to call Nana. Then I called my heart friend in Uruguay. He fell apart. Don’t despair, I told him. This is life at its strongest. I’ve gotten under the wire too often. My time has come. It’s OK. I can’t ask for much more since I’ve had so much. God knows me. I trust him.

Even a thistle is beautiful if you observe it closely. It's all how you look at things. Think artichoke flower. Major thistle. A lovely lavender blue. And all those artichokes growing in Castro, California where there's even a fast food artichoke place. These thistles are called "caldo" in Spanish and become the horses favorite snacks, if left in fields in Uruguay. All sorts of thistles are used in the finest of English gardens because of their texture and color. The English know how to turn a weed into a show piece. But there’s something rewarding about every flower. Every speck of bad news has something good about it. Maybe it’s the "apoyo" of friends and family. They are the stems that hold me up.

So now I wait for a meeting Monday with the surgeon. (I keep calling him the "sculptor." I don’t know why). The first doctor suggested wasn’t able to help me out because of other health problems. So an equally skilled specialist in breast cancer tumors signed me up right away. Now the original surgeon has changed his heart an will take me on. He has saved lives of some of my life-long friends. He is the boob tumor specialist and had graciously removed my gal bladder in his earlier years as a doctor (I was a resident in Uruguay then and flew up to Memphis for the removal about 12 years ago.) I had been able to walk a mile the day after surgery and traveled to a flower design seminar in Florida.

After I meet with him, I can finally re-structure my calendar. I’m not an "if" person. I don’t like not knowing what I’m doing. I’m best running for the prize, the goal, the top of the mountain so I can start another ascent. Sometimes you have to change horses mid-stream when one isn't working out. But one way or the other, I need to know.

On looking around my bedroom-office I really need to clean off a table stacked with papers, pages I tear out of the NY Times and New Yorker, books (I invest in books big time), magazines, DVDs, mail - two months worth of unclaimed information. Also start my spiritual journey writing project, sit silent and create poetry, and get the printer fixed. (It keeps saying there’s a paper jam. I can’t find the jam.) Oh, and go to Starbucks, alas. I hear the rain is back, our local weathermen are so thrilled when they can roll out their maps and pointers). It's roaring on my windows. Goodie for gardens.

And the Rains Came

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Storms and Biopsies

The Morning After

Yesterday a storm poured through the Mid-South. Schools closed early. A first grader commented, "They’re closing the school for rain?" And I had to think the same thing. Where’s the snow and ice? We have always been on the tornado circuit, although most tornados leap the Mississippi and land a dozen miles on the other side. And the clouds were lava black yesterday as this long strip storm sped across the river like a noisy Indianapolis race car going who knows where for what reason, victory over something, I guess. A warm storm like this in mid-winter is surely an example of global warming. As well, the Ecuadoran volcano Tunguruhua located between Quito and Guayaquil has stirred up and is spitting fire, and Hilary Clinton won the first primary. Hoorah. Having been a door breaker when I was the first woman ordained to Holy Orders in the southern cone of South America, I am pro women as political leaders.

Yesterday a small storm pushed into my life. I’ve lived through a number of diseased (malaria, the serious hepatitus, both when I returned from Africa in ‘62, and others unmentionable) but have felt healthier and stronger this past year at 67 and 68 than in anytime in my life. When I go in for annual mammograms I shrink not, even when they flip and flop my boob in such a way I wonder if the technician has had a bad day. I was told by good doctors in Uruguay that I don’t have cancer-type breasts. I nursed my three children 26 months total. I eat blueberries and strawberries and broccoli and am a vegetarian of sorts (no meat or chicken). I don’t drink or smoke or gamble (not even slots) and drink only one cup of coffee and not always daily. (I irritated my father because I usually only drank half a cup and left the rest.) I’ve used aluminum free deodorant for thirty years (that may be to stop alzheimers). I take a ton of pills to stay alive (like Lipitor and CQ10. I exercise and deep breathe and stretch and climb stairs (when I can find them) and have great faith in God that nothing is wasted in our lives if we grab the ball when it comes our way. My mantra is the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary. But, I reasoned, maybe it’s my time to hit the fan, so to speak. There is nothing so special about me that suggests I shouldn’t have to go through the female blight called breast cancer. I’ve thought about it every time I see the color pink.

The biopsy yesterday was tedious and mostly waiting and wondering why I was waiting. My close friends Mike and Novella drove me under tomentous skies to the Women’s Center and were willing to sit it out with me, but my daughter arrived and took charge. It seems everyone I know has had biopsies, including both of my daughters. So we sat in the squares of rooms in pretty comfy chairs and I read The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller. I was wrapped in two robes both opened toward the front (one for biopsy, one for warmth - although with 70 degree temperatures outside and air-conditioners not adjusted, I was too toasty) like everyone else present in the name of mammogram or ultrasound or biopsy, both good and bad news. The place was packed. '

The Doctoress (Doctora in Spanish) is suspicious about this tiny moment that has invaded my boob - it’s like Let’s Make a Deal - Door one: it could be something sounding like paladapolus - is that a Middle Eastern bread? - which is not cancer but would have to be removed before a couple of months passed (I didn’t ask why). Door Number Two: a tiniest of a cancer tumor which can be cut out and probably without the falderal of chemicals that usually wear one’s spirit down. (The Doctoress herself had a tiny tumor cut out in the ‘90ties.) Door Number Three: it could be nothing and we just leave it for posterity. I’m confident it’s whatever God is ready to throw at me now - and I’ll deal with it like I deal with most challenges. I’ll listen, I’ll pray, I’ll prepare and run to win whether I do or not.

A biopsy of something so tiny is done with ultrasound. It took a number of passes to find the thing. The breast is numbed with novocaine - sort of like going to the dentist - and they get to work. Alcohol was dabbed all over the place. And some jell. Then a needle was inserted to make a path for the digger (my term). It’s relative if you are oozing or bruising because that can interfere with vision. I oozed. Then a weapon was made ready - I didn’t dare look at that, hearing the Doctoress and the Nurse talking about it, sounded like a shark gun - they find the target and shoot the hook in and it grabs a fish and pops back out. Why a gun? Because the Doctoress asked, Ready to fire? And when the target was exact, she said, Fire. There was a definite pop and then a sigh of relief. It wasn’t painful because I was numb. However, it was repeated two times more to get three good samples. (Seemed to me if it was so tiny, couldn’t they have taken it all?)

Meanwhile you hold your left arm (left side) over your head for about a half hour as this procedure is endured (I suggested they put handles on the top of the chair-bed to hold on to). There was no silence during the biopsy. Everyone chatted - sort of meaningless things. About mutual friends. About living on the river. About when I could return to exercise. A nurse named Pat who had advised me on the front end about what would happen held my hand. I hope I didn’t cut off her circulation. She had one of those angel voices that seeped through the chatter.
A plain old band-aid was put over the wound. An ice pack followed. I had to press myself for a while. Keep ice on it the rest of the day. Wear an exercise bra to bed. Don't lay down for eight hours. There were lots of "ifs" as well but the best solution was pressing hard against the wound and icing up. Because I had oozed and bruised, I wasn’t to resume exercise for three days. I was told I could not lift anything the rest of the day - nothing heavier than a coffee cup.

Have you ever thought about that? My purse is heavier than a filled gallon jug. So are my car keys. But of course, I couldn’t drive. My sweet daughter became my pack horse and chauffer. As the black clouds hovered over East Memphis buildings, we headed out to the grocery just as the rains came. Ha. Have you ever imagined how heavy a grapefruit or cantaloupe is? Or a carton of milk? It was hard for a "do it yourself" person to have to ask someone to do it for me. I couldn’t even lift the dog bowl. But part of my family, loyal as we are, went to the Grizzlies - Lakers basketball game to celebrate Elvis’ birthday (?) and eat popcorn.

Primarily, of this experience - the results of which I should know today - is everyone’s prayer and love was felt deeply in my heart. And the emails of encouragement and confidence as well. I’ll spend these days correcting, re-writing and adding photos to my blog. I apologize for the errors but I did not have an editor and I was mostly in a panic to get the blog off when there was a moment of Internet. (During my trip.) I will also bug the Geek Squad as I await the return of the saved data from my laptop that crashed. It’s been two and a half weeks. Waiting. Breathe Deeply. Believe.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

End of the Tale/Tail of 2007

Why Can't Christmas Be Like This?

I made it through Christmas without consorting with poinsettias - those red, pink, white flowers that one dumps in the garbage after Christmas. They grew wild in my garden in Uruguay and in most semi tropical areas. But they wilt and wither in pots, usually long before Christmas arrives, and especially if they’ve been whisked through freezing cold air to get into your house. When it comes to Christmas celebrating, my house is a Scrooge. My heart and soul aren’t, but in my old age I’m downsizing decoration for any holiday. Best to give that money to someone who needs it.

If there is one given in my life - beside debt and worrying about weight - I’ve kept my passport up to date for the past fifty years and use it. I’ve always been an unintentional world traveler, and now I can add eco-traveler to my credits. This past year was a festival of international airports for me. And I still have my luggage. Amazing. Frankfort was a horror show (changing planes) trying to find out where I was supposed to be. Heathrow was a nightmare - I lost my bifocals - and was not happy with only one carry on (including your pocketbooks. Are they nuts?) Mexico City’s airport was to die for with all the top designers represented in boutiques. Don’t dally but go for the gate area. Still the best for me is Memphis’ own. Where else can you get Randezvous barbecue ribs and Elvis memorabilia in pleasant surroundings?

In 2007, New Years began in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, studying poetry with some of the greats - Jennifer Clement, Mark Doty, and favorites of mine, Irishmen Paul Muldoon and Glyn Maxwell. I learned more about poetry from Jennifer than I have from anybody although I still haven’t tackled the publishing carousel as she suggested. Subject matter in quaint San Miguel was everywhere, especially hanging out in the town square where the pink Roman Catholic Cathedral celebrated by turning on its lights for the New Year, one of the only nights of the year it does such. I followed this up with a stay at Casa Que Canta in Zihuatanejo where I suffered the best facial of my life given by a young Thai lady who pats and never rubs in the creams. I sadly discovered that deep sea fishing is a cruel sport - the fishermen-guides whopped the beautiful sailfish we caught to death with a baseball bat - so he wouldn’t suffer or hurt us? Blood splattered all over me and the fishing boat. No one squirmed, just hosed down property with salty sea water.

In pursuit of poetry in January, I joined Miles Coon’s Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which is really in Delray Beach, to study with the maestra Heather McHugh, who was nursing the flu, spent a lot of times at a Starbucks and joined a great friend for dinner at the Brazilian Court Hotel’s CafĂ© Bouloud, a top ten in America. When I was just a toddler - in the forties - my grandmother leased a corner room there for her winters in Palm Beach. It has fancied up its luxury tag, but the gardens are still beautifully manicured patio to patio and dramatically lit in colors for tropical nights. Worth Avenue is still best viewed at night with credit cards left in the safety box.

After such infusions of poetry, I settled into volunteer work back in Memphis, being trained as a CASA (court appointed advocate for abused children), and became a division chief for the volunteer probation officer service at Juvenile Court. (I’d been a volunteer probation officer three years.) And my favorite ministry remains as chaplain at Reconation Academy, the lockup facility for juvenile girls, where with Peggy Miller, we teach crochet, knitting, and all sorts of seasonal crafts. But what launches each week in the right direction is offering the short chapel service each Sunday morning at 7 a.m. for the homeless of Memphis. In the basement of Calvary Church, volunteers serve about 150 clients a breakfast of eggs, bacon, homemade biscuits and grits but first we pray, read the gospel, and sing "This Little Light of Mine." In March, I was honored with a Jefferson Award for volunteer service, a national award sponsored locally by The Commercial Appeal.

A trip to Los Angeles for an AIDS fundraiser dinner in the exotic home of two designer friends offered a day at Sea World (in San Diego) to bond with dolphins, and even ride one, As I held on to the dolphin’s dorsal fin with a life grip, I knew this was a divine moment, and I would not slip off - the female dolphin slightly slowed down as I was moving my grip higher. I felt I could do this every day. Why is there such a longing to communicate with the animals? I want to believe I'm harmless, although man use and abuse wild animals with unbroken spirits. When living on a coffee shamba on the outside slopes of Ngorongoro Crater near Karatu, Tanganyika, in 1963, we’d often round a curve in the dirt road to slide into the rump of a slowly wandering elephant on. My instinct was to jump out of the landrover to chat with the beast, but my first husband, who knew better, (his father was a "white hunter"), had backed up so fast I couldn’t get out of the open topped landrover in time. Why are we always the enemy? We had a pet gazelle named Bokkie, and looked into the possibility of raising an orphaned elephant or warthog, but had to flee Tanganyika because of the revolution in 1963.

Dolphins at Sea World trust paying "tourist invaders" only because their trusted trainers let them know it’s okay. For a hefty fee, we learned to give signals and to be splashed with ice cold water by jovial new aquine friends. Wet suits give little protection against cold water temperatures that must be maintained for dolphins, Orcas and other sea creatures, but you imagine you are warm as the water slowly sleeps through the fabric and hits your skin. And we were warned, don't try these things if you run into dophins and whales in the seas.

In June I scratched a long time itch to see Iceland. And there I found an earthy heaven - hardly stepped off the Icelandic jet near Reykjavik when I was swished off to the Blue Lagoon, where I found a kind of lolling peace floating in the hot thermal waters cleansed by volcanic rock. Go early, before the crowds, and sign up for a massage

It’s given for two hours in the waters themselves using creams and scrubs made from the salts taken from those waters, and at one point you are held up by two pool tubes (macaroni things) floating under warm towels in the silence of perfection, your face masked with white salts that come right off the rock floor of the lava pools.

Iceland is a miracle of geography. There are samples of just about every kind of phenomenon on earth from geysers to dramatic water falls, to natural steam baths to dry mountains and frozen glaciers over a corner of which you can ride a snowmobile (I felt as if I was falling off the back end). The entire country is lit and heated by underground thermal steam so there is no waste of energy. (Why don’t we take advantage of Yellowstone Park’s thermal energy?) The countryside is blanketed with purple lupines and lush green pastures are home to Icelandic ponies - the only equestrian breed allowed on the island, i.e. no mixed or pure horse breeds. Icelandic ponies are used for farming, for pleasure riding, and for some competitions. A dream was to ride an Icelandic pony, but the day I left home I fell on my tail bone on a tile floor and cracked it. I won’t bother you with the agony of having to adjust to that on long flights and bouncing in huge four wheel drives with tires taller than I am.

There was an opportunity for whale and puffin watching, but as I rocked on the boat full of tourist ecstatic from seeing a few whale tails breaking the rough seas, I remembered I had spent a morning swimming with white Beluga whales at Sea World - an incredible experience - just feeling the white marshmallow like skin, and feeding their obvious smiles. Life is good.

Iceland is young, chic, full of funky fashion (the singer Bjorg shops at the Crazy Monkey) and the food is creative - for my birthday I ate grilled fresh corvina served with a scoop of chocolate ice cream melting into a salsa. Well, it didn’t work.

Greenland ice floes of summer

From Iceland I was able to spend three nights in Greenland, well, nights that are never night. It’s always daylight in the summer hours. I was flown to Kulusuk in the Arctic Circle and from that tiny airport (with seal coats for sale) I was loaded onto a red helicopter (put on the ear phones, please) and flown to Ammassalik, one of the few settlements on the Western shores where tourism tries to birth. It is not tourist friendly yet (backpacks and hikers boots are the norm): the hotel where I stayed had not seen a supply ship since September. (This was June). Therefore meals were not varied, but almost desperate. There was one crafts artist selling tupilak creatures carved out of walrus ivory, reindeer horn or soapstone found in Greenland’s fjords - a bad luck charm against enemies - in the old days life was conjured in the figure and it was placed in a kayak of the one for whom the death wish was aimed- sort of like voodoo dolls - but watch out, if the spirit wasn’t conjured correctly, it could turn and kill the sender at the same time.

Outside the hotel windows were scraggly looking sled dogs, chained up for the summer months, howling for hunger, burrowing into holes they had dug in the soil as the snow melted, and waiting for happier days when they are hooked up to pull long sleds over the frozen waters. In this tiny town of red, green and blue wooden houses built up and down steep hills, there was always the spectacular views of mountains covered with snow and ice and the gigantic icebergs breaking up in the summer months. It was as if people waited for winter to return since there wasn’t that much to do in summer but kayak, repair and fish. I wondered what my Jackson Hole mountain and rock climbing friends would do if they could flurry on these high peaks surrounding these bays. At least they could start at sea level. A small fishing boat trip through icebergs was like a trip through a royal realm of white and blue fantasy worlds. We watched for polar bears, who usually come out of hibernation in June as ice floes break from bergs but saw none. Another helicopter trip to the top of the major glacier which covers all of Greenland gave me a chance to take a handful of ice from this Arctic Pole area and let it melt on my tongue.

From Greenland it was to London, just in time for the bomb scare. I had been shopping at Liberty’s (a great place for fabric and yarn) one day, and the next it was blocked off for the bomb scare. (I was also in New York City for 9-11.) My intention in London was to catch up on theater and to attend Wimbledon and hopefully pass by and see Roger Federer, a favorite athlete. However, Wimbledon was mostly about dashing out of Center Court to escape a rain deluge by seeking shelter in the food area which was dry but offered a celebrity or two such as Price Brosnan. I had to try strawberries and clotted cream and scones. None was thrilling as the anticipation, alas, certain traditions are only available at certain time of the afternoon. The rules on court during the matches are so strict that even clearing your throat can cause the entire tennis audience to look at you with scorn. Don’t move. Don’t even snap a camera during a point. I left the court and loaded up on souvenirs (there is a huge shop at Wimbledon) for my super-tennis player daughter and my family. Then went for a drive to see chalk horses, crop circles, and the mysterious rock arrangement called Stonehenge, which is so packed with tourist it’s hard to get a photograph of the gigantic stones alone. It was the time of the solstice and no dawn excursions to feel the spirits was allowed. I also shared the rich British custom of high tea with the great lady of flower design, Julia Clement, who is 101 years old but looked thirty years younger, arrived in a taxi by herself, even though she can hardly see anything but the periphery. She is such the ideal representative of a lady, as is the Queen of England, and is just as curious about the latest flower designers and their activities as she ever was. She still writes letters by hand and lives on her own. God bless her.

But the most adventurous moment I had - besides eating sushi with an old friend (she trained me to be proper deacon) at Oh Sushi, where the Russian spy was poisoned - was a fluke: having gone to the theater (Mary Poppins) with assurance by the hotel concierge that I’d have no trouble finding a taxi on Charring Cross Road, I found myself lost in a post-theater rainstorm and taxi drought. There just were no taxis, not on any street. Finally I saw these questionable rickshaws being pedaled by young men. (I had ridden a highly decorated rickshaw once in South Africa) so I asked one if he knew where Claridge Hotel was, he didn’t. I didn’t either. I was desperate. So I asked another and he actually pulled out a map. I couldn’t give him much help - other than it was located near such n such park. But he said, climb aboard (there was a small umbrella to keep off the downpour) and started pedaling away. Well, no one respects these new travel machines - primitive as they are. They do U-turns anywhere, and buses and taxis almost threaten them as they pass. I was thinking of headlines - Deacon Dies in Desperate Rickshaw Ride. Or something. There was no license, but the young man spoke Spanish, was from Colombia, and a football fanatic, so I burst into Spanish and waxed poetic about South American football and other sports. I felt a bit safer, if only for the language compatability. Believe you me, he got me back to the hotel, and I was so thankful I gave him double his original fee. I also saw sides of London I’d never recognize in daylight. God saves.

The real destination of this June-July trip was St. Petersburg, Russia, for a poetry seminar where I was scheduled to study, finally, with the great American poet Jorie Graham, who had been my daughter’s mentor in her college days. However, Ms. Graham did not show (and I was not getting my money back.) She was in a minor wreck in France and cancelled. She had also cancelled the previous year. But this time I was almost there with only two days notice. Not much I could do. (We were told she’d comment on our poems, which she had in hand, and send them to us. I have received nothing six months later.)

At least I was staying not in poor quarters like most of the younger poets, but at a sparkling hotel - Grand Hotel Europa - which gave Russian teddy bears and chocolate bonbons for welcome gifts. The teacher’s aide who was assigned to our poet group was Katie Peterson, a sharp poet on her own, and a sympathetic teacher. I attended the workshops, but set out to know St. Petersburg and of course return to my favorite painting of all times, Rembrandt’s "Prodigal Son", still standing at the Hermitage. So many Rembrandts, so many Gaugains, so many Matisses - including another favorite which, on seeing in person, is not the colors that I had learned from slides as a art history student. Whoever put the Hermitage collection together - Catherine the Great had a lot to do with it - had a good eye. To be in the ornate, gold gilded Hermitage is one of the great privileges of travel in Russia, and don’t forget to buy a souvenir Faberge egg charm.

Food was the glitter here. Caviar at every meal, smoked salmon and fish of every sort, almond cakes to die for, and black bread, which I never got to sample.

There was also a romp in a park with a Russian bear cub owned by a circus, getting the lowdown on Rasputin's final days, visiting an engaging botanic garden and the incredible Church of the Holy Blood where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated . The mosaics that cover every inch of space in the church are a religious art connoisseur’s dream. I lit candles for my sick friends at St. Nicholas Cathedral, which houses ten icons of saints, and learned how to paint Matuschka dolls, (although I have already donated my collection of 230 dolls to Mengei Museum in San Diego), but I was happy to climb aboard the plane to leave Russia after a week. Something snakes uncomfortably there in Putin’s domain. The fashion may be modern, chic, high-fashioned, punk-fashioned (dread locks and piercings) and yet citizens seem to be looking back over their shoulders as if a shadow of history hovers portentiously. There are parades of young women, tall, sleek as models. Men move with men, and are round, serious of face, (laughing only in small groups at meals) and probably members of the Mafia elite, especially those dining in my expensive hotel. In a land where language has nothing at all to do with Romance languages or English, you engage in a silence of information, understanding nothing, not even single words. This was the toughest experience for me. I want to know people of all cultures.

St. Petersburg, I was told, is divided into twelve sectors, each under the hand of a Mafia don. The prices for just about anything are exorbitant and woe if it is imported from another country. Everyone in St. Petersburg lives in flats - there are only eight private houses, once owned by the wealthy royalty. But private houses are illegal now. So everyone is packed in six story buildings, shoulder to shoulder, along canals or wide streets. When I was there, the Hermitage grounds were being set up for an Elton John concert, outdoors.

With a ten day turn around at home, I left for San Francisco for the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, but with stops first to visit artist friends in San Francisco and to dine at last at the great French Laundry in Napa Valley. My secret to reservations was the grand dame of Napa Valley vineyards (Schoenberg champagnes) who joined us for the 14 course excursion into incredible edibles: 14 sets of silverware, 14 different exotic white Limoges china (designed by the chef) and 14 glasses of such form and plink the table seemed an offering before Virgin Mary’s altar, lit by blood, a sacrifice through the esophagus. My favorite was the popcorn flavored sorbet and the appetizer, Oyster and Pearls - a saboyan of pearl tapioca with beau soliel oysters and white sturgeon caviar. Sigh. It’s not something you could do every night, or every week, or every month, but once now and then with great friends, it’s worth the price and the drive.

Stuffed at French Laundry

After such a meal, I was off to Squaw Valley to nestle into the Sierra Nevadas once again and be surrounded by the best of poets - Bob Hass, who is the founding father of this group, Brenda Hillman, Sharon Olds, Jimmy Santiago Baca and wonderful Claudia Rankine. En route, Claudia, who rode with me from San Francisco, and I stopped at the art reserve spread throughout barns, a home and in the pastures, featuring all the artists I’ve collected and loved through the years: Bob Arneson, Roy de Forest, William Wiley, Bob Hudson, Bill Allan, Gilhooly, and more and more new ones that keep on making Northern California art the most interesting school of all, in my opinion.

Yes, That's My Body!

At Squaw Valley, it’s always a challenge to create a new poem every day. So I do extreme things - besides bonding with the Sierra Nevada environment, I go para-sailing (talking about getting High!!) And also tried my hand at a trapeze school (you are there 20 minutes) where, upon jumping off the high board, my shoulder snapped (I forgot I had a frozen shoulder, but no longer), and so my swing was cut short - i.e. I couldn’t pull my legs up over the bar to fly upside down. Oh well. At least I leaped. Let me tell you, those safety nets are not comfortable. They are tough and hard and scratchy, but they save lives. The manager of this activity in Squaw Valley is Argentine. South America is all around us.

I made a brief stop in my old home Jackson Hole to visit a invaluable friend and while there I was able to return to Pearl Street Bagels for their great shakes and bagels, to be rolfed again by Natasha, and to try the new climbing gym with my old (young) trainer Augie for a workout. Nothing do I like better than climbing the walls in such exotic gyms as they have in Jackson and getting Thai massages from Elizabeth, the best anywhere. At Louise’s, we had bear scares, (Louise is the West's advocate of bears and all beast wild ) and the elk paraded across her fields in a foggy dawn so I was able to get excellent photographs. A dinner cooked by Jim Williams, my faithful guide to major adventures, resulted in plans to trek to the base camp at Mt. Everest and do the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailas and other places in Tibet and Nepal in spring 08. I’m ready.

Loving the rock walls of Jackson Hole

Settling down at home again has not been easy. But it is time to start major training for the spring 08 challenge. I returned to Pilates, to Kareem, my personal trainer at a gym, not yet tap dancing, but I am back at my daily tennis workout with Charlie. This routine got me in shape for the extraordinary trip through South America which is covered in detail on the blog. Maybe I realized I wasn’t so old as to have to pass up extreme challenges, so I started making lists of the hundred things I wanted to do before I die. The secret would be in getting fit and believing I can do anything if I arrange my habits to accomplish my dreams. No more "you can’t do it because you are female," or because you are too old, or because you are too fat. No more excuses.

I don’t go to movie theaters or bars (I don’t drink). I do watch American Idol, Today Show, Oprah, America Has Talent, and Dance with the Stars, but my mantra is Law and Order, in all its forms. On my safaris, I take DVDs of their programs to watch on a laptop even when television is an option. At home I follow Sunday football, cheering for former Memphis Tiger record setter DeAngelo Williams (who made two touchdowns on the weekend for Carolina Panthers) and for the Titans, but with tough love, I continue to support the worst team in the NBA, the Grizzlies, my own hometown cheer and yearn for that day we might show up in the positive column. I own season tickets to but haven’t yet been to the University of Memphis basketball games. I don’t want to bring them bad luck, just in case. They are number one to all of us.

I’ve had lots of disappointments in 07 but they won’t drag me down. I just want a couple poems accepted in some publication. But regardless, I’m pushing for a more exciting 08 - taking the challenge, and hopefully writing my life story, after so many requests. (My novel the Lolololo Tree is complete but lies asleep in the closet.) Living is all about the adventure, the risk-taking, the faith, the personal "Yes", the Rocky dance at the end of a challenge. It’s not being afraid to touch someone, to carry on a conversation with those who look lost and lonely, and to make life better for some when I can. But most of all, it’s thanking God every day for the privilege of serving Him.