Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I wrote this in my personal journal on Valentine's Day, 2014:

". . . since reading Wild I've been thinking of my whole life as a journey, and everything in it as a step along the trail. At the end, Strayed said "Thank you" (to God? to the universe? impossible to tell) for her journey and when I sat down to meditate yesterday that's what rose to the surface in me, just not for a hike but for everything on my 61½-year journey.

In my meditation, I felt gratitude for all the through-hikers and day-hikers I met along the way, for the scenery and the animals. Mr. Simply and I have shared the trail for over 40 years now -- 2/3rds of our lives. We've got through it by putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how much our feet hurt, or how steep and rocky or icy or muddy the trail, or how rotten the weather and there's been some damn fine moments along the way that made it worth every blister."


Monday, February 12, 2018

I wrote this during the last winter of Mr. Simply's life, before we knew:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-From "The Summer Day", by Mary Oliver

What I planned to do, I have mostly already done. They may not have always, or even mostly, been the right ones, but I have made plenty of decisions: I once bought a convertible sports car. I moved to Atlanta, married, went to Outward Bound school, became a therapist, bought a house, started my own practice (now there was a leap of faith), adopted a child. I've accepted a dog as a gift, sight unseen, and loved her for a decade and a half. I've bought a dog, bred and raised two more, and adopted another one. I've rescued a cat and re-homed two parrots. And I have done a fair job with most of these things. Not great jobs, but I haven't, I hope, made complete hashes of any of them.

Some of the most wild and precious things about my life weren't planned at all. I've slept outside and listened to a little island deer call its mother, and heard her reply; that same night I heard an owl hoot from a tree directly over my tent. I've paddled the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and heard the loons calling there. I've watched an eagle snatch a fish out of a lake in the Great North Woods -- right in front of me, in a place so quiet, so wild that I heard his wings beating long before I ever saw him. I've lain in my tent at night with Daisy and listened to foxes bark, and sat on my sister's back porch and listened to the Whippoorwills calling in the woods behind her pasture.

I've smoked dope, drunk too much, and sobered up. I've ridden horseback, traveled the world, swum, and hiked -- until I thought I would die of heat stroke, until my leg blistered under my brace, until I crossed trails with a timber wolf. I've been lost in the woods and come upon fields of flowers with clouds of butterflies. I've watched a puppy chase a butterfly. I have eaten pancakes made over a camp-fire with blackberries picked from beside the trail (thanks to Mom for that one). I have birded and taken photographs, and tried to write. I can identify 223 birds by sight, and some by sound. I have seen Woodcocks in their courting flights and heard them peent. I have read some of the most wonderful books! I've laughed out loud in public over passages from A Prayer for Owen Meany, and tried to hide the tears streaming down my cheeks while I read The Art of Racing in the Rain.

I have sat through close to 50,000 psychotherapy sessions, and at that I think I have been pretty good. I can hypnotize people. I may now have only a couple of hundred sessions left in me.
Many things I'd hoped to do, I never will. I will not walk the AT (certainly not with Mr. Simply's dad), ever take Mr. Simply to Europe, or learn to fly. It is too late for that.

Instead, I will watch the birds slipping around on the ice, and if careful observation is a prayer, then I will prayerfully discover that what I thought was one Yellow-rumped Warbler is in fact two distinct, recognizable individuals. I will praise Mr. Simply for shoveling the drive today because it makes him feel useful, which he in fact is not much any more. I will finish Cheryl Strayed's Wild, which is what started this whole meditation, sip hot cocoa with whipped cream. I will stay in touch with friends and family, keep counting birds, and make my yard a better place for wildlife.

And above all I will remember this: All life, even an old, tired, dried-up life, is still wild and precious.



I'm doing a meditation on experiencing the world accepting me just as I am and having trouble understanding even what that means, never mind experiencing it. But there was a strip in the comics today, in Mutts, about exactly that. And I thought this evening as the glow intensified and those fat yellow blooms bobbed in the fading light that yes, they are saying to me, We love you darling. They were a gift of love from my grandmother when she dug them, shook off the soil, and packed them and sent them from the Sedgefield post office all those years ago. It was an act of love when Mr. Simply and I bought this house together and I sat in the dirt and sweated and dug and planted them for us, for our future. And they were a gift of love from the universe, from the soil and the rains and the sun, when they came up and bloomed the following spring--as they have done every spring since for about 30 years. Every year, a drift of I love you, Darlings under the pine trees, waiting for me by the curb when I come home in the evening; saying Good morning, Darling, we love you from outside my window when I open the curtains every day.

I think I get it now.


Friday, November 18, 2016

No, I Am Not Going to Shut Up

I have no desire to live in an echo chamber, or to alienate Trump voters wholesale, both of which many of us are being accused of. But here's the thing: It's impossible to confront fascism (and the racism and other isms that come with it) without naming it. I tried the other night in an email to my father and by the time I got done editing it there was nothing left.

And we cannot pretend that this race was not about fascism and the racism that is part and parcel of it. How white were his rallies? Look at the way the vote split along racial lines! The KKK endorsed him, for God's sake. And so forth and so on, along each -ism you care to use to measure by.

If the vote were about jobs for the working class, killing TPP and rebuilding infrastructure, why didn't the white working class all vote for Bernie in the primaries? How could they not see all the jobs Mr. Obama has brought back and vote accordingly? The insurance he provided some 20 million of them with that they did not have before, ditto? The one-year extension to unemployment voted through by Democrats? and so forth.

If it was really about "draining the swamp," how do you explain that nobody saw (or cared) that he wouldn't release his own tax filings and that he surrounded himself with insiders and lobbyists?

If it was really about being heard, about bringing about change, don't you think they would have wanted someone with a track record of concern for the working class (Bernie, for example), someone with experience who understood how the system works (almost anybody else running, for example)?

If it weren't about race and gender and sexual identity or orientation and immigrant status and disability and religion, then why do you think members of all these non-WASP groups are so terrified right now? Are we all delusional?

Nope, I'm not buyin' it.

Sure, a lot of perfectly nice people probably held their noses and voted for him anyway because he was the Republican nominee. And they probably don't consider themselves racists, and probably they are not terribly comfortable with a lot of his other -isms either.

But here's the thing. I, too, know many Trump voters who seem(ed) "perfectly nice", as one editorial put it this week, but scratch the surface and the -isms are all there, every one. Maybe they follow the rules--they grant mortgages fairly, their churches admit Black families. But is it not racist to perpetuate the myth among themselves and their children that (mostly brown) illegal immigrants are taking their jobs, to sincerely believe in their heart of hearts and to teach their students that all (mostly brown) Muslims are terrorists, to behave as if Black people account for most of welfare recipients when debating entitlement programs? How do you define "racism"? To me, merely harboring bias qualifies. Expressing prejudice is over the line for sure.

In Buddhist thinking, many values are expressed as negatives--it is, as I understand it, simply the nature of the Pali language that this is so but it also has profound implications for how you think about a thing. Take the First Precept, for example, which says, "I shall endeavor not to harm any sentient being." We could have 1000 rules about what to do (I shall endeavor to obey the speed limit, eat vegetarian, wear cotton not wool, catch bugs and put them outside alive and well, etc.) and they would never manage to cover every exigency. But if you express it as not-harm, well then. It covers every conceivable base as we try to put it into play in our daily lives.

So. How about explicitly not-racist acts? The ethical question each Trump voter faces is, "What is the not-racist thing to do here?" Ask yourself: Are they calling upon their candidate to walk back his campaign promise to register Muslims? Have they asked him for some kind of statement about his old policy of not renting to Blacks? Have they confronted him about his followers' Jew-S-A chanting? Did they demand that he forcefully repudiate the Klan endorsement? Are they asking him now to please not give Brannon a White House job? No? Then where's the not-racism you speak of?

Buddhism is big on restraint as an ethic. Most precepts as originally formulated specify that not only do we refrain, but also we don't cause anyone else to do those things (steal, lie, etc.) either. We might ask, then, are Trump voters not-racist? Is it not-racist behavior when they say, "I am not a racist, but. . . ?" Are they not-racist when they give that man a pass on all this, when they not only overlook it but actively reward it with their votes?

I'm not seeing it. Are you?

And so I would argue that Trump voters are overwhelmingly not not-racist, at the very least, and that we would not be in this pickle right now if that were not so. We could use the terms fascism and not-fascism and have exactly the same conversation about NATO and the wall and the registry and on down the list and come to exactly the same conclusion. And I believe that this not-fascism is going to be the death of this country if we don't deal with it directly and forcefully.

It scares and saddens me to see so many thinkers and writers asking us to hunker down and fight what is to come one symptom at a time as if this were politics as normal. Medicare "reform"? Tamp it down. A registry for Muslims? Tamp that down. It's like my physician telling me, "Never mind the virus, that's not important (and it's your imagination running away with you anyway). Let's just focus on getting your fever down! You'll be fine. And here's some salve for those blisters." While my heart is damaged and my kidneys are threatening to shut down and.

So, no. I am not going to stop participating in discussions about why/how this happened, about what the real causes are. I am not going to stop calling out racism or any other -ism when I see it. And hard pass on the request that we all stop already with the Hitler metaphors (which isn't metaphorical anyway--look it up). This is not conservative politics as usual: This was a vote for the very soul of our country and the sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can redeem it from purgatory.

As the t-shirt says: You thought I was a nasty woman before? Buckle up, Buttercup.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Update on Mr. Simply, and a bit of backstory -- plus another request

I wrote this e-mail last year about my husband, to his friends:
As most of you probably know by now, Mr. Simply did not come home today. He had a fever, was throwing up, and is confused, so. He held it together pretty well for a visit from Stanley, but trust me when I tell you, he's confused. Also, his pain still isn't well-controlled. He has a pain pump now. Maybe tomorrow.

It is heartening to him how y'all care about him, and your calls and visits have meant more than I can say. Hospice was an incredibly difficult decision to make and even after it was made, continued to be a struggle for him to accept. You know how they always say, 'you have no idea until you have been through it yourself'? I had no idea. No earthly idea.

Here's how we got here from there: As most of y'all may already know, Stage IV cancer is incurable by definition. But sometimes one can hold off the inevitable for a year or even longer, and he tried hard this summer to do just that. He was at an excellent treatment center -- his surgeon from last spring teaches doctors at other clinics around the nation how to do the kind of surgery Mr. Simply had, just for one example. And the study he was almost in is cutting edge, internationally.

We thought we had more time -- maybe even as much as two years more.

But it was already too late last year for a cure -- it was already in his circulatory system, which we suspected might be the case from the pathology report then. So when it came back, any treatment would be what they call "palliative," which is to say, it might help with symptoms and might buy him some extra time. At that point, his prognosis was approximately six months to live without treatment, nine or so with -- although there were a few folk in studies still living at 18 and 20 months, mets to the bone are a poor prognostic indicator, and he had those right from the beginning of his progression. He'd had a new biopsy and the results came back that he had a couple of mutations with studies going for them, but they were out of state and therefore completely unreachable for us. The trouble was also that most of the most important studies going on were for driver mutations he didn't have. And in any event, you always want to try the proven treatments before the unproven. Studies are a last resort, for obvious reasons.

Ergo, the chemo he got. This was the recommended "salvage" therapy for people who've had chemo before and had recurrences or progressions. And it failed. Spectacularly. Not only did it not slow the cancer down, it put him in the hospital and he experienced "extensive" spread of his cancer while he was in the treatment so that by this time, I guess around mid-summer, he now had mets to multiple ribs, his clavicle, his kidney, the one already on his liver and the ones on his spine were growing fast, a new one on his pelvis, and one on his skull.

Next they tried to get him in the cutting edge study going on right here, for which he also had the correct markers in his liver tumor biopsy, but he was already too sick. His pain was not under control (one of many requirements to enter most studies) and by the time they got that in order (temporarily, as it turned out) and tried to get him into the study a second time, his labs were abnormal (another requirement -- that all your labs be in range). He was going to make a last-ditch effort, starting a round of chemo last Thursday, to shrink the tumors and get the pain and labs back within parameters and attempt the study one more time, but he didn't make it to Thursday.

You have to be ambulatory for chemo, and besides it would have taken weeks for it to work, if it did at all (for this last one there was a less than 5% chance that it would even slow the progression, never mind reduce his tumor load) and he could not have stood the pain for that long. Nobody could. It was so bad that when the rescue crew knelt on the bed to check his vitals, the mattress movement alone made him scream.

As sick as he is, there is no study he will qualify for now. And there is absolutely no scientific support for any of the other stuff such as drinking vinegar, taking thousands of mg of Vitamin C, or even smoking dope, that has been suggested to us this summer. Everybody's professor who cured himself with C is an urban myth tracing back to Linus Pauling, a professor to be sure, but one who died of cancer while choking down bales of the stuff. And what dope will get you is arrested and your house and car seized. Besides which, in Georgia cancer patients can get the pills by Rx. So why take the risk? Nor do various and sundry Chinese herbs and Korean tree bark or anything else cure cancer. Some even trigger it. There have been some studies done on all of these things, and they are either coming up goose eggs or inconsistent.

Please believe me when I tell you that if there was a treatment out there that would work for him, or a study that would take him, he'd be in it.

His oncologist could no longer control his pain, but hospice can, and it gives him a shot at a peaceful, calm death at home, completely free of pain and surrounded by the people and pets he loves. Any further attempts at treatment will likely only make him sicker, weaken him further, and maybe even kill him sooner -- and in any event he could not possibly do it: By Tuesday, remember, he could no longer get out of bed. How would we get him there? How could he have possibly stood it? When I tell you he was screaming when he tried to get up, I am not exaggerating. He was in agony. They had to shoot him full of Fentanyl before they could move him, and he was still crying out.

Hospice has that pain down to next to nothing, and is the only route by which he could have gotten there.

His oncologist told us last week that he would likely live "less than three months". One week of that has already gone by. He can spend the last weeks of his life in agony, getting treatments that have a 19:1 chance of making him worse instead of better, traveling by ambulance (it takes a minimum of four agonizing transfers to go anywhere and come back, don't forget) [at $900 each way -Ed.] to consult quacks or at best new doctors who are not going to be any better than the ones he's got. . . or he can spend it at home, comfortable and in the loving embrace of you and me and the animals. Studies do show that people who go into hospice early not only have a better quality of life in their remaining days but also live slightly longer than people who continue to pursue aggressive treatment to the bitter end.

So the best gift we can give him now, as hard as it is going to be to let him go, is our acceptance of his death, our compassion, and our support.

To that end, I am begging you, please do not talk to him any more about trials, cures, miracles, or 'fighting'. When you do, you are implying that he, his doctors, and I have not already done everything we/they could, and I'm sure, knowing you all as I do, that that's not what you mean to say at all. I know you are all only trying to help, that you do have his best interests at heart, that you only love him and want to see him live.

He has already been brave and tough -- braver and tougher than you will ever know. He went through the pain of the surgery, and the sickness from the chemo (and the pain from the neulasta each time) and all the scans and the pain from the mets in his bones and and and. All without flinching or complaining or any sign of fear. He's fought his fight, and fought it far better than I ever would have had the shoe been on the other foot. Leave him be on that one, please: Stop implying to him that he's somehow giving up. He hasn't. He has been and continues to be, even in the face of death, the single most courageous person I have ever known.

Hospice is his miracle now, dying with grace and dignity is his battle. All he needs from you for this to happen is your loving support.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.


Friday, April 17, 2015

On Becoming an Old Crone

I never understood what was meant by the wisdom of our elders, I just took it for granted that they were. Wise, I mean. And I tried to listen to what they had to share, I really did. I tried to live mindfully. I wrote gratitude lists. But I never really understood.

Until now.

My handy-dandy on-line journal minder tells me that on this day three years ago I was suffering from disappointment. Mr. Simply and I were at my state professional association's annual conference in the mountains, which coincided with a photography club shoot that weekend. There was to be a meteor shower of epic proportion, and there was a mountain-top park nearby that would have made for perfect viewing.

Had it not rained, and the mountain been socked in by the fog.

I had rented a very nice prime lens and a primo tripod for the occasion, and was bemoaning the expense, given that I could use them for absolutely nothing else. 

My point?

I know now that none of that matters. We were in the mountains, for gods' sakes! The azaleas were in bloom. There were woods dripping wet and filled with bird song right outside the door to our room. We ate fabulous meals at a nearby roadhouse. Two of our friends were up there, too, for the weekend.

We were alive!

That's all that matters.

His bird likes to ask, "What? What? What?" This morning I told her I didn't know. I was still learning. Things I wish I'd known 10, 20, 30 years ago. I would have been a lot happier, and maybe Mr. Simply would have been, too.

I know you can't tell people these things. Without the lived experience, it means nothing. But I'm still thinking about setting up as the old crone on the outskirts of the village, that people come to see, bringing little gifts or doing little chores around her cottage. (Think Grandpa Sam Reaches in Thunderheart).

Go watch it again. And then think about coming by tomorrow, or maybe the next day. Bring fresh-laid eggs. I will tell you what I have learned. Maybe it won't be too late for you.


Friday, February 13, 2015


I wrote this a year ago today in my Penzu​ journal, under the title "Frozen". Sorry, it's long, but seems so apropos to the grieving.
It was one of those moments I wished I could freeze in time, but of course one can't. I remember once, standing outside the gates at [my college] with [my college boyfriend], the light just so, at the end of the school year, I guess, and we were saying goodbye for the summer (pretty much forever, as it turned out), and I wanted to freeze-frame that one. Of course I'd done it before -- bound to have -- and certainly have done it since, but I was conscious of the effort then and kind of startled by it. Daisy and the butterfly was another one such moment. The bluebird in the snow on the branch of the blooming dogwood in our yard yet another. The eagle in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area during my Outward Bound vision quest. The foxes barking when I was camped with Daisy at her first hunting trial. 
This morning it was the snow. It was piled high on all the branches, which were stark against a grey sky. The cardinals were at the feeder in back and in the dying dogwood tree, the male a brilliant red against the white snow/black bark/gray sky, the only real color around. It was like the winters we had when I was growing up in NC. I feel blessed to have had not one, but two good snows this winter, when with global warming I've had such a sense of loss and sadness that I'd probably never see another one. And now to have two! 
I was glad to have been up to see it before it started to melt, which it is doing pretty rapidly. I was sorry to see the sun start to peek through. But as Cheryl Strayed wrote towards the end of Wild, "There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that." 
Just being present for what is, as it is and as it changes, is the hardest thing when what I want with every cell in my body is to go back, to make something or someone stay, to freeze a moment, to hold on to the feeling of wonder and joy that I had this morning when I first opened the drapes and looked out on the magical world. 
And as I typed those words, feeling sad and empty, the phoebe flew into the yard for the first time in days (if not a week or more), and I felt that same surge of joy again to see him, and tears came to my eyes. He's so beautiful today: He fills me up all over again. 
One glorious thing gives way to another. 
So although I can still hear Paula's laugh, see the puppy Daisy lunging at the end of her check cord for that brilliant yellow butterfly, feel that bitty animal scampering over my sleeping bag that chilly August night on Lake Superior, it is over. There is no way to go back, to make it stay. There never was.
--And as I was reading this, and thinking that I have to believe that one glorious thing will go on giving way to another, as has been true time immemorial and forever shall be, that the good life isn't over because Mr. Simply died and I'm getting old, and not having much faith in any of that, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew into the yard, landed right outside my window for a few seconds, looked right at me, and flew on.