Monday, March 31, 2008

The Glutes are Ready

As the final week before departure approaches, I’ve been imagining two months of life mostly in tents or tea houses with suspect toilets in areas about which I have no concept except for what the camera has captured in books or for television documentaries. There are stories, dramas in particular, about death and divinity in lands exotic and daring where extreme adventurers and mountain climbers shackle themselves with the worst form of celebrity. But I have no doubt that my own adventure has been laid out to give me a chance to know something completely outside my comfort zone and experience. Oh, I’ve been in these situations before - traveling alone at 22 for three months in emerging Africa of 1962, then living twenty glorious years in Uruguay in a fragile period after the military dictatorship, and even those many family pack trips we took on horseback through the Green River Range in Wyoming when I was an under-teen. So, I have no doubt about dealing with the conditions of a new challenge and I have no doubt I’ll end the pilgrimage to Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan with a more solid spirit. I only wonder how I will handle the rearrangement of my daily routine whether I’m 12 or 18 thousand feet in high air deep breathing like a maniac, dressed in layers of the latest sweat absorbing underwear, wool socks and the latest in rain jackets, swigging boiled water from a fancy nipple and nurturing blisters in what had been my favorite hiking shoes. Can it still be fun, or even better funny? Funny is filling fifty-nine baggies with homemade gorp and figuring out how pack them along with extra camera and computer batteries fully charged, two Ken Follett epics, enough writing pads for a novel and enough La Mer face cream to keep more wrinkles at bay.

And this body which surprises me: can I will it on beyond anything I’d ask it to do here at home? Are the abs, calves, glutes and guts ready for what I must ask them to do? Sometimes I can’t even will it to go out on a sunny day and walk along the flooding Mississippi River. Sometimes I can’t even will it to go one more mile to stop at the grocery. And all the while I wonder, after recent events, if the medics opened up my core would they find disease raging skin wall to skin wall, sneaking in to devour the organs that keep me functioning, bringing me into an incapacitated capacity. Am I dying or living? Do I want to know? No. The point is to blur out the pains and aches that accompany asking extreme effort from the body, and to put in their place the joy of being where I am. My hope is to test waters of new communities, new architecture, new friends, new cultures such as Sherpas and Buddhist monks and to write about it. I wonder where women fit in and how they are addressed. Are they artists, priests, independent? If so many young boys become monks, what happens to young girls? Can they seek holiness and enlightenment, too?

As I review the detailed itinerary that’ll push me into unfamiliar places and experiences, I realize I’ll be come a slave to sleeping bags, to hiking skirts (which are better to urinate under in public places,) to rice and yak butter and peeled fruit, to sponge baths and adjustable walking sticks, to forgetting about who I’ve been in order to find out who I am now. I do not cower one bit. I know it will be two months without television, cell phone instant information, ice, frappachino, my old loyal Escape, and experiencing live my grandchildren’s accomplishments. In these last days I delighted in a four year old’s birthday tea party, a 20 year old’s presentation as Queen of a social ball for which the entire family congregated, and a bronze of my face being hung forever in Juvenile Court’s halls for winning the Jefferson Award 2007. But what happens next, I have only dreams, only hopes. At least I’ll spend two months not waking up to television breaking news of murder, shootings, fantastical political diatribes and racism, and watching confused and disturbed young people lose their way through adolescence. I want to be proud of my home town. But flowers are dying before the buds open. Can I find answers in the foothills of Mt. Everest or the sacred lake Manasarovar where a dip in its waters will release all my sins of one hundred births? One round of the three day Mt. Kailas pilgrimage as well guarantees all sins are forgiven. Can I do it for Memphis?

I’m curious about how I’ll entertain myself with only 14 hours of computer battery life for 18 hours on a flight across the Pacific, and what will be my first impression of Kathmandu, Nepal, basically the umbilical chord of the trip, treks beginning and ending and resupplying there. Not one to falter in high altitudes, I know this is a different set of mountains and no matter how fit or skilled a trekker might be, (and I’m proud I’ve kept up the training since August), what happened yesterday isn’t always true tomorrow. But my guide Jim will make sure we go at the right pace with plenty of time allotted for altitude acclimatization.

I long to be surrounded in the red of a new fabric, the tastes of spices I’ve never smelled, the sounds of prayer and prayer wheels, the vibes of new religions that only confirm the strength, love and grace the God of my faith allows me. If we are able to make the kora (pilgrimage) around Mt. Kailas in Tibet (that comes in May), I will go, fingering my Episcopal prayer beads, on the knees of a penitent Christian, allowing the robes of the Holy Spirit to fall like honey poured over my head. I carry with delight and honor the many prayer flags made by teens of Calvary Episcopal Church, by Mrs. Rodriguez first grade class in Nashville, by the animal saint Louise of Jackson Hole and by delinquent young ladies in a prison facility for which I am chaplain. As I drape these flags on sacred poles along the different treks, I’ll know that our prayers will blow with just as much verve and song as those in Tibetan prayer flags to the ears of God. And that will give Him delight and me peace.

Photos: Blessing the prayer flags at Calvary, Angela lets me hang in Pilates Class; a tea party for four-year-olds with gloves; Judge Person hangs my bronze portrait in Juvenile Court; My girls in detention make prayer flags.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Fixing Cancer

How long before you can say you are a cancer survivor? How long before the coast is clear and you can skedaddle out of the world of unsuspected, unknown microbes that dance around in our cells screaming and yelling on low tone (identified with girls in prison) to a music we provide in a hum we don’t know we are humming. Will ever bump, every pain, every itch be relevant? Will one become hypochondriatic? Or will we be able to see the centers of the cherry blossoms, the bees nosing pollen from a purple crocus, the bison at peace in the new green field and quit focusing on ourselves. Others are so much more interesting.

Is there a diet, an exercise routine, a mental game that we can fix cancer with? Can we jump rope so many times while chewing vitamin gum and be loosed from sin? Good heavens. Cancer can not be a tear, but a smile. It’s not a crucifixion but an Easter. Right now, I feel my tomb is empty and what was slept in there has gone. But then I’m an optimist.

Am I cancer free? Has it gone? As far as I’m concerned, the door has closed. That door, anyway. And I stand outside. Today I met my next oncologist, a popular doctor at West Clinic who wears a business suit and Italian square toed shoes rather than a white robe. He said I look fine. I feel fine. I’m fit. But the cancer I had, he said, developed in the cells in a certain way that could develop again somewhere else. What did you say? I missed it and didn’t dare ask again. But he added, it can be treated against reoccurrence thru hormone therapy (since mine was estrogen fed) or Chemotherapy. Chemo wasn’t necessary for me but I must take estrogen blockers - one pill a day - for five years. That’s okay with me, however I asked that he allow me to start such body changing therapy after my trek to the base camp of Everest and to Mt. Kailas and Bhutan - the two month adventure coming up in two weeks. He had no problem with that. My body could make odd changes as estrogen production would be reduced and I wouldn’t know how to deal with that so far away. There is, he said, no urgency. June 16 is my next appointment and estrogen blockers will begin.

West Clinic is about as close as Memphis gets to something like Sloan Kettering. It is where cancer, having thrown challenges in the lives of the unsuspecting, and some expecting, confronts the bravest of warriors. It’s where the victims meet and greet it and learn to live through it and with it. It’s not a dream place. It’s a place where the facts are as straight as Jack Webb on Dragnet. Just the facts, mam. As I entered this special place, which is a traffic jumble to get to, I brought with me the stack of papers that had been sent a week prior to fill out. They asked questions for which I had no answers. Who remembers chicken pox or the day menstruation began???? Not me. I can’t even recall when I had my last period. My brain didn’t mark that as a milestone just as I didn’t notice when I apparently went through menopause.

I was then presented with an electronic device which looked like a mixture of Etch-A-Sketch and the new Brain Games. I was to tap the screen with my answers. (There is a computer whiz sitting at a desk to offer assistance.) Most of the questions were related to how I felt since the last visit (of course there was no previous visit for me) and went through a huge list of questions about how I felt - dizzy, tired, coughing, sore, dry eyes, dry throat, off-balance, suicidal, depressed, as if living wasn’t worth it, kind of things - a ton of negative thoughts. None asked if I felt good, energetic, happy, complete.

My nightmare is waiting. Waiting wastes life, wastes time that is valuable when you get to the top of your sixties. I had been warned that waiting was part of the punishment, the payment for cancer’s invasion in my life, part of the price of having the best doctor’s attention. The walls in the general waiting room were filled with awful artwork. I noticed that right off, being an art collector and lover. So I took out my crochet needle and kept focused on that and sent messages on my blackberry. It was almost two hours before I got the call to go to the next cell. I was surprised how many very elderly people were in the holding lounge. I think of cancer as a middle age bull to ride. But we live long past what was once the norm so there is more time for it to grab hold of our weakening organs. In modern life, we have more time to do things right, to live healthy, and to worry about what life would be like if we survive mates, children, and best friends. But we also have more time to know God and to straighten up our act before it’s too late and judgment day arrives. We have more time to master love and gather in more and more of the needy, the unloved, the lonely, the weeping masses.

I wish I could leave the cancer anticipations behind as I set out on a new challenge. I wish the survivor’s five years were complete. I’ve only passed through a month. But in the interim, it’s best to grab the horse by the tail and gallop on through life’s next adventure fearlessly, pulling out all stops, and loving everyone I am given the opportunity to love. Am I going to change my lifestyle? No. I have finally settled into the "Me" that took so many years to become acquainted with. And so now this me is going into strange worlds and lands to see how I feel in places outside my "conocimiento", outside my experience and knowledge, outside my comfort zone. I trust people are similar everywhere and it’s being able to accept who they are in spite of who I am that will allow hands to grasp each other in friendship.
Photos: paintings by Linda Sloken, Beth Edwards, and discovering bison in Memphis after a six mile trek, well, it's not the same as Jackson Hole.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Interim

The cancer surgeon smiled. My scars were well healing and not too obvious two weeks after I finished radiation (MammoSite 5). Where did February go? Dr. Patterson named my new shepherd, the oncologist who would now take over the vigilance of my cancer’s aftermath, if any.

I smiled. Cheerful, never fearful, ready to change subject matter. Let’s get on with life.

An hour earlier I had dropped Jim Williams and his friend at the airport. Jim is the man to be responsible for herding me through Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan for two months (April and May.) He also pulled an aching me up the Grand Teton and other mountains with my 15 year old granddaughter in 2003.

So, I spent the weekend asking questions Jim willingly answered and introducing him to my family and trainers to give them confidence and peace about what I was about to undertake. He also prepared my laptop for the tasks ahead so I might keep up a blog and dispatches with photos, and I have to learn the ends and outs of a satellite phone and UU2. Where I’ll be going, there’s not even running water in some areas, much less electricity. I’ve ordered two extra extended batteries and an external hard drive for my laptop. I gotta be able to communicate. I switched from Verizon to AT&T’s global roaming cell phones (blackberries) since the former covers few countries, and the latter covers the world, including Nepal and Thailand.

Cancer. Trekking in strange parts of the world. Both are whatever you allow them to be. Neither is easy, but with faith in God and yourself challenges are surmountable and can be fun trying to figure out how to meet them. Even a freak blizzard in a normally modest town of winter (Memphis) posed weekend obstacles that demanded patience. Jim’s flight was cancelled, he ended up in Nashville, and arrived a day late so we miss the great party called Staxtacular, a fund raiser at Stax Museum of which various players from the Grizzlies NBA team and other corporations plus myself are sponsors. And on all of our minds is the massacre of six people and violent stabbing of three more little ones who survived, that happened on our streets last week.
It’s hard to believe this is Memphis.

It hasn’t taken long for me to switch focus from the cancer and crime to getting ready for the unknown. I’ve been sneaking in a good Pilates or gym workout all through the cancer moments. I’ve added tennis workouts again, holding my left breast in my hand so I won’t hit it with the heel of the racket, which I’m apt to do when warming up (I actually hit the ball better that way. Hmmm.) Jim bent the ear of my great trainer Kareem, telling him the upper body is just as important as the lower body, and that the main aim is to be able to walk two to three hours in the morning and then two to three hours in the afternoon. So we are on that treadmill of training. We’ll move outdoors Easter week.
( Photo: Kareem and Jim plotting my training)
First I must figure out the technical things - car chargers for laptop, phone, cameras, Itouch. I-Go connectors. Backup hard drives. Camera abilities. There are some things some of us can’t do without - although I know the doing without may be more valuable in the long run than the doing with. I need to shift around photos on my laptop to make room for new ones to come. This week I’ve designated electronics week. Next week, it’ll be rounding up gear - like waterproof duffle bags, rain suits, collapsible walking sticks, proper hiking boots broken into shape from the get-go and with sticky rubber outsole; sleeping bags warm enough for minus twenty degrees, my own baby pillows to stuff in its roll; Gore-tex pants, down jackets, hiking skirts (I’ll get those in Kathmandu - it's disrespectful for women to wear shorts or tight pants, the best solution is a long hiking skirt), lots of wool socks, long underwear (both lightweight and medium), hats (my ugly Galapagos hat with the hanging down flap will be good), gloves with liners, daypacks, backpacks (my nemesis), a Crazy Creek Chair (a collapsible camping chair) and things like a hydration system (Camel Bak), wide mouthed water bottles, thermoses, and a funnel to pee in. Jim explained the latter is for early morning calls when it’s freezing cold outside the tent. Alas, a new task to learn.

Meanwhile, prayer flags are in the making. Not traditional Buddhist ones, but our own kind of personal Bible Belt - Memphis flags are being painted by the youth group at Calvary Episcopal Church and by a first grade class in Nashville (my granddaughters), and hopefully by the girl’s in prison for whom I am chaplain and mentor. These will be rolled into the duffle bags after being blessed on this side of the seas, and again by a lama in Nepal, and then be left hanging in the wind, with hope and prayers blowing up to God, our God, everyone’s God. I’ll place them at the base camp of Mt. Everest and along the pilgrim route to Mt. Kailash in Tibet.
(Photo left - Youth group creating prayer flags.)

I’m expecting days will be long of tooth with lots of walking, trekking, hiking, climbing, riding in bumpy vehicles and probably wishing I could watch international news on TV. No way. Meals will be regular but probably unfamiliar and my likes and dislikes menu is odd now but may have to change drastically. I’ll learn to eat plenty of carbs to keep the body functioning, probably no sugar (yea) and some sort of protein to replace meat, chicken, pork, which I have denounced (except for barbecue ribs.) My favorite comestible is bread, home made bread, and that’s not a biggie in the parts to which I’m going. There is something called Roti I’ll discover. Once the daily routine sets itself in like a good jello, then the fun will begin, the body and soul acclimatizing to a new place, a new life, a new hope, a new altitude each day. I’m most excited about meeting a new nationality of people, and not having to dress fancily to step out the door, but figuring out how to dress warmly with the possibility of peeling off fabrics as the day heats up. Yes, Yes, I’ll have sherpas to watch over me, especially with that dreaded backpack. It’ll make me think of the guys who pick up the pulloff sweats and tops of NBA players as they go in to play. I’ll try to pick up my own stuff and keep tying things around my waste until we have a break. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with boiled water (it sometimes has to be boiled a second or third time, if not imbibed. ) Maybe I’ll take up tea drinking, yak butter tea.

I hope to write a blog every day or every two days and to illustrate it with photographs. You’ll hear every groan and every joy and all the "A-Ha" moments. Sharing the experiences with friends and readers makes it all worthwhile.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Standing Tall

It’s been five days since radiation ended. And I have more energy than I did before I started this interim in my life. I’m already back at Pilates and the gym, and Sunday I am going to brave a tennis workout for the first time since the balloon settled in my breast. (It’s out, of course.) I’ve had two days of acupuncture this week to boost my immune system (everyone around me and in my family seems to have the stomach virus and a flu bug). As for my boob, it is healing pleasantly. Sometimes in the night (finally sleeping without a bra, yea!) I’ll have a small twitch or two letting me know that it’s there and has been through some sort of hell that I’m not aware of. But I switch positions among my multitude of baby pillows, and it passes. Best part of the week has been having my oldest daughter visiting with her friends and family to enjoy the Morgan-Keegan tennis tourney at the Racquet Club. I see the variety of guests at bed and breakfast and rejoice that they are having fun.

What now? I ask. In ten days I see the surgeon for a "how I am doing". In ten days after that I check in with the radiologists. Sometime in that parry of days I’ll be assigned to an oncologist who will keep me posted on my life and the arrival and departures of future cancers, if they continue to access my body. I see already I have very little control of what goes on behind the skin. I’ve read lots of attachments to emails - a couple saying that bananas can cure just about anything and then others claiming that cancer is caused by sugar, substitute sugars, barbecue or anything grilled on a outside grill, chocolate, milk and milk products (use soy milk?), Vitamin C, meat big time (that’s ok - I’m vegetarian) and a variety of things including anger. I’m in deep waters if those are primary causes. But I buckle up with a Canadian herb mix called Essiac, two Super Greens tablets and two Nine Spiced Tea pills from my California acupuncturist and I am trying to boost up my low potassium score by eating at least half a banana a day. They rot before I can finish a bunch.

Like most whites with Scottish ancestory and a history of burning to black in the Florida sun every winter of my youth, I’ve been knicked around by precancerous skin cell appearances. But since I go to the skin doctor three times a year (and he always finds something to burn away that could be something, but never is, so far - knock on wood), that has not gotten out of hand. I wonder, in retrospect, what in the world did I do to permit a cancer to take hold inside of my rather healthy system - and the answer seems to harp on my continuing to take hormones (hence estrogen and progesterone) when I probably should have put a halt on them a couple years after menopause. Menopause for me was a non-event. I didn’t even know I had been through it until I went to a OBGYN and he told me "You don’t have any more eggs. Menopause has happened." So out came the IUD and in came hormones to boost various things so I wouldn’t get too old too quickly, I guess. Se la vie. All good things must come to an end.

The magic of my state today, in addition to God’s grace and love, is that Dr. Mize at the Women’s Center at Baptist East Hospital spotted a suspicious place in a November mammogram. (I’ve been regularly doing mammograms since I was 40 because it was what we women were supposed to do.) Her keen sight and knowledge saved me from disaster. She is on my prayer list forever, as are my other angels: my surgeon, my physicist, my radiologist Dr. Lee, Dee-Jay and the wonderful spirits at the GD. They’ve treated me like a Mercedes when I’m really a Volkswagen.
I must say this has been the fastest February I’ve ever spent. In many places, especially in the world of finance and business, it’s considered the suicide month. They blame it on indoor confinement and radical investments and maybe broken hearts on Valentine’s Day. But for me, it’s been a time of resurrection, restoration, and reconstruction of energy and health. I am confident in what is to come because there has been so much love and prayer in my shaky moments, although, to be serious, knowing the presence of prayer surrounding me in my life, I haven’t felt nervous, discouraged or even shaky (except when I try to pour chocolate sauce over homemade peppermint ice cream, today while having lunch with a dear friend. )

I returned yesterday to visit the halls of Juvenile Court and receive healing hugs from Judge Person and his staff, the baliffs, as well as the ladies and Mr Evans in Volunteer Services, and heard my personal trainer Kareem speak in the GOAL program to detained delinquents so much in need of mentoring. Then I stopped by Reconation Academy, the girl’s prison where I’m a board member and chaplain, to hug "my girls", 24 of them trying hard to re-route their very difficult but not yet lost lives. So I feel good. And I’m back in training for the Everest base camp adventure and wondering if we’ll see the rare snow leopard.
Photos from top: Ann Edwards painting; Bananas on Death Table; Eggs in Hands; Ann Fabry painting of my kind of angel.