I’m grateful for having come in to an appreciation of Buddhist thought, an understanding of how to be in the present (see fifth floor elevator speech in previous blog, “Buddhism and Mindfulness”). I have learned to appreciate the Buddhist philosophical insights. I was always enamored by the work of David Hume, the eighteenth-century English philosopher. He was a radical skeptic who developed a theory that we could not prove any argument based simply on cause and effect because you could never truly observe cause and effect. Emmanuel Kant, agreeing with David Hume, said that it doesn’t matter that we can’t prove cause and effect. It is not a matter of reality. We construct the concept of cause and effect to understand the world. It is built into our thinking process. It is also the manner of how we construct the self. We think that we are the result of actions and reactions that have shaped our lives, but it is a fabrication of the mind. Likewise, we could never observe the self of a person, Hume argued, there is no such thing as the “self.” Since the time of Buddha two thousand years ago, as I have learned, they put forward the same notion that there is no “self.” There are only actions and reactions. The self that we proclaim to be–who we are–is really an illusion, a fabrication, a story we tell ourselves. What I have experienced with cancer, chemotherapy, Parkinson’s, and now blindness is that the self I once thought I was is no longer meaningful. And like Borges, I do not want to be intimidated by my losses, rather find what has opened up to me. Buddhism has provided me with a practice and a path forward. What I have now is amazing and immediate and I am grateful for what I have. I’m healthy, loved by my family and friends, and I feel alive.
Archives for November 2015
I am grateful for the wonderful good health I have, the physical well-being, and the daily joys that are open to me now in ways that weren’t available before because, while there were isolated moments in which I stopped to appreciate the world around me, I didn’t have, or didn’t take, the time to let go of my plans enough to immerse myself in the present moment. I remember particular instances in which I was able to enter into an unfiltered world made available to me through LSD, but which the business of life screens out. Those experiences with acid opened my eyes to a vista of a world that I realized was always there, but which I was never really seeing. So I knew there was something out there worth paying attention to, but the exigencies of daily life always reclaimed my attention and made a filter which shut down what was no longer essential to the business at hand. My plans always circumscribed what I could see, what I could touch, what I could feel. The pressure of the future was always looming over me. By virtue of necessity, the present is now open to me now in ways that it wasn’t open to me before.
I am especially grateful to my assistant, Heidi Varian, who has shown an amazing determination and ability to help me structure and record my poetry. Thus, the world of poetry remains open and viable for me. What Heidi does is help me to work on my poems with huge amounts of patience, allowing me to dictate and revise, dictate and revise, dictate and revise. And then, she builds a readable, large version of small segments of poems on a huge computer screen that works much like a teleprompter. She paces the text to the rhythm of my voice so that I can read the poems and record them. This process allows me to participate in readings. By playing back these recorded versions of my poems. This allows me to promote my work like our new book The Art of Healing, with the use of I-phone, wireless Bose speaker, and playback capability. Like Borges, as I work with Heidi, I find my way into the magic of language as a supplicant, listening to mysterious inner voices that show up in my understanding of syntax and music. I am intrigued with a quote of Oscar Wilde, brought to me both from the essay of Borges and blogger Matt Reimann, “I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer’s blindness might be really an artistic myth created in critical days, and serving to remind us not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but he is a true singer also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again till he has caught the secret of its melody, chanting in darkness the words that are winged with light.”
I have fought a long battle with glaucoma, through many eye operations, and long, slow and only partial recoveries (I know the cancer/chemo aggravated my vision problems). And though it has now claimed most of my eyesight, leaving me with partial vision in only one eye, I do have that vision. I can walk about in the world, and I can understand aspects of the universe that I didn’t understand before because of this limit on my eyesight. I have grown to be kinder, gentler, and more forgiving. I have come to see the world in layers: more comprehensively, more in the fierce urgency of “now,” in moving from point A to point B, in negotiating shifts of shadow and light, and in listening more intently with complete focus to bird songs, to the sounds of traffic, to the tenor of people’s voices as they speak. It has been in many ways an opening up of a world that until recently felt like it was closing down. I am particularly grateful to the Lions Center for the Blind and particularly to Shaun Wargowsky, who has helped me learn how to cross busy streets with a blind cane, how to negotiate the subway system in the Bay Area, and how to use my new Iphone as a device for obtaining verbal directions to guide me as I navigate my new world.
On the heels of cancer and chemotherapy, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago. I suspect the cancer/chemo was a cause, but I don’t know. But this disease remains more a shadow on my future than an interference with my life today, except for a mild tremor and a muddling of my mental machinations. I enrolled in an exercise class for Parkinson’s patients and discovered what my future held in store for me: brave people who struggled to speak, who struggled to walk, one who fell and broke her leg, another who fell down a flight of stairs, one who took a trip and returned not the same person, as if the trip had taken all his remaining energy and life force. All of them struggling to put one foot in front of the other, keep their posture straight, their head and shoulders back, a constant forced cheerfulness in their faces as they cheered each other on. After a few months of working with them, I realized my Parkinson’s was not advanced very far compared to theirs and I did not need this exercise class yet. My Parkinson’s had not progressed far enough to make it helpful. Instead, I go to the gym three to four days with Gail. I am immensely grateful for this current span of living in which the disease leaves me alone and remains like a shark circling in the distance.
My second gratitude is intrinsically related to my first gratitude. During the eighteen weeks of chemotherapy, I didn’t know if I would live or die and I felt myself retreat into my private world of dealing with the unknown with denials and fear and depression. I am immensely grateful to my wife of thirty years, poet Gail Rudd Entrekin, who, during the worst part of my chemotherapy, crawled into bed with me in the hospital–to the astonishment of the staff and other patients–and helped me watch the drip, drip, drip of the poison going into my body. Because I had a bad reaction to the drug, the process required eight hours each time. For three years afterwards, Gail was caregiver, constant companion, helpmate, closest friend, devoted lover, and loving wife. In many ways, my cancer was rougher on Gail than it was on me. As someone has said, it is harder to care for someone you love who is suffering than to be the one that is suffering and being cared for. We were able to capture some of the struggle and transformation that occurred in poetry. Gail and I recently completed a book of poems The Art of Healing that reflects our two journeys, as caregiver and survivor, from diagnosis to treatment to healing, and the coming to terms with what remains, what it means to be alive and part of a larger web of being.
It has been six years since I was operated on for large B cell lymphoma and I survived that cancer. I am grateful to Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, a brilliant oncologist with the University of California, San Francisco, for his efforts in keeping me alive. I underwent surgery for a massive tumor in my chest and intense chemotherapy. I still have CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) but it is in remission and I am currently cancer free. In fact, although it has taken the full six years to get where I am now, cancer feels far away and not anywhere involved in the “now” of my life. Before cancer, I had pursued careers in teaching at every level, including college level, and started a creative writing department at John F. Kennedy University. That was before I decided that I needed more money than a teaching profession would provide and changed course into a career path of computer technologies and entrepreneurism. But I still kept writing, and finished a novel, too. I was engaged in promoting my book and was chairman of the board of a computer software company. When cancer struck, all of that life disappeared. I had a really busy life at that point that was dramatically altered by cancer. I did not know what the future held. But my life was saved.
From now to Thanksgiving this year I am going to post a series of seven gratitudes because I am trying to come to some kind of clarity about this particular span of my life in which, in fact, everything is okay. Everything is good. I’m healthy and happy and I am able to enjoy the amazing good fortune of my life. I have been reading about people who have suffered from blindness—Homer, John Milton, Jorge Luis Borges, Galileo Galiliei—and the different responses they made in dealing with their affliction. They were all amazing people and how they dealt with their problems has been inspiring and instructive, Borges in particular. One thing I took away from his essay, “Blindness,” I want to relate here because it is particularly relevant to my gratitudes.
Referring to Rudolf Steiner, Borges relates in his essay, “He said that when something ends, we must think that something begins. His advice is salutary, but the execution is difficult, because we only know what we have lost, not what we will gain. We have a very precise image—an image at times shameless—of what we have lost, but we are ignorant of what may follow or replace it.”
After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security.
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.
So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong
And you really do have worth…
And you learn and learn…
With every goodbye you learn.