There is a Shambhala saying, “You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.” I take these words to mean something like this: chicken shit may be messy and stinky and time consuming to deal with, but as a task it can almost invisibly become routinized, easy, predictable and satisfying. The chicken is another matter: flighty, opinionated, even though her opinions are impenetrable or rather the logic of her opinions seems to bear no relation to the material conditions of her existence. She imagines she is a queen and should be treated thus by loyal subjects, or she imagines she is hawk, a bird destined to prey on all smaller creatures and insects and even invisible beings who plague and torment and also add spice to her life. Or she may be perfectly healthy, apparently happy and cooing one moment, and then just like that, without warning, dead as a dodo. Understanding the chicken, loving her through thick and thin, is not always easy. Though you might say that this is all projection—human projection of our own or my own crankiness and unknowingness—onto the chicken. The Shambhala saying (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s riff on the Buddhist maxim, “Work with the greatest defilements first”) is after all a saying, a dicho, a deployment of metaphor. To take it too literally is to stray into minefields of our own making, fields carefully cultivated with chicken shit and home-crafted, jerry-built landmines.
Many cultures and story telling traditions and philosophical orientations utilize animals in this way. Think of Aesop’s fables, think of African folk tales, think of a philosopher like Jacques Derrida. I remember hearing Derrida talk, over many weeks, about the cow, in the context of “eating the other.” And in Sydney, delivering a lecture on friendship he spoke about cats, taking a very concrete, quotidian experience to play with the notion of friendship. Well, he said, it’s irritating and a pain to deal with other cats in the building who come and eat your cat’s food. But you can work on your attitude and eventually see this cat as existing in a continuum with your cat. Instead of continuity breeding contempt and hostility and erecting domestic barricades you might eventually entertain the notion of a feline continuity, and welcome the other cat into your home, not grudgingly but with generosity of spirit. However, he said, and I remember how Derrida played out this moment dramatically, using the pause, the tilted head, the glinting eye and raised eyebrow: What if one day you hear a scratching at the door and you go to open it and you open it and there, sitting on the mat is a cat, but this cat is a lion. This image was so vivid, it has stayed with me as complex thread unraveling over time. Was this a metaphor? Or was it an example grounded in the material world? I think it was both. And so it is in many of these traditions or inflections of moral precepts, or teasing out of philosophical conundrums. The Lion and the Chicken are not to be taken literally, but neither are they merely metaphors. They are at once familiar, quotidian (the lion is a kind of cat, the chicken is connected to chicken shit), and their dramatic performance is surprising, unlikely, has the capacity to wake us up, to confront us with the surprising and unexpected and alien and difficult.
Chicken shit happens. Chickens, on the other hand, can take us by surprise, provoke unhappenings.
All I wanted when I first went to the Shambhala center at the end of my street was some help with meditation, some hints on how to integrate the body with a calming of the mind, some training in how to foster a practice, a routine. I wanted to subdue the panic, find some way of coping with illness. Trained in the hard knocks school of high theory I felt I did not need any more mind-training.
Today I pull Training the Mind off the book shelf, to check on that chicken shit reference, and two slogans printed on flimsy bits of paper fall out: “Work with the greatest defilements first” and “Don’t be so predictable.”
On the one hand there is sitting meditation, a concentration of the mind on the breath. On the other hand there is contemplative meditation. Theoretically the focus on breath, on the body, grounds one for contemplation. I still haven’t quite figured out where the practice of sitting-and-breathing-and-not-thinking intersects with sitting-and-breathing-and-thinking-about-things, about, say, the slogans. I just muddle along, helped by teachers, by the structure of the sangha.
Training the Mind by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche explicates the seven points of mind training (lojong) attributed to the Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha in 982 C.E. The list of fifty nine mind-training slogans are often referred to as the Atisha Slogans. Pithy, practical, a way of training our minds both through formal practice and through everyday life as a means of awakening. Waking up entails coming to realize the habitual nature of the self (not just the generalized self, but my self, uurgh), realizing the “other” as other. The slogans bear repetition because of their capacity to change: they double back, dodge and creep up on you from unexpected angles.
You should work with whatever is your greatest obstacle first – whether it is aggression, passion, pride, arrogance, jealousy, or what have you. You should not just say “I will sit more first, and I will deal with that later.” Working with the greatest defilements means working with the highlights of your experience or your problems. You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.
Good habits, repetition, the assurance of a routine, all this is necessary to maintain a meditative practice. It is very hard to learn to breath without this kind of structure. The structure facilitates: How much easier the day becomes if everyday you manage to find even a short time for slowing the mind, for breathing peacefully. But, but, but … (insists the voice of the skeptic, or looking at it differently, the Derridean) it is also all too easy to settle, via routine, into the fatness of certitude
his certitudes perched like fat chickens
How do you grapple with the tenacious grip of the ego and yet avoid positioning the other as the predictable obverse or prop to one’s glorious egolessness? How do you avoid interpreting the slogans through the lens of a moral universe? How to pre-empt the snarkiness, the judgement, the relentless drive to control everything, the frustration and irritation and despair with those around, with myself, with Israel’s assault on Gaza, with immigration policies in this country, with the global environmental catastrophe engulfing us all? How do you engage with the world, how do you avoid grand generalizations and self-righteous litanies of complaint about the bad other? For this we know: mindful shifting of the habitual can in itself become a habit, promoting a comforting quietude and detachment from politics both quotidian and public.
from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens, every night of the siege, one or two were carried off in the jaws of rationalism and despair.
Chicken shit happens. Chickens transmogrify. Between the cushion of contemplation and the world out there is an ocean, an ocean where we surf and are tossed by the stormy waves of birth, old age, global catastrophe, genocide, sickness and death.
It’s all very well to realize and to see the lion or the chicken as merely a projection of self. But to fully recognize the lion or the chicken as something other than a projection of self. Not so easy. Not so easy to do this off the cushion, out there or in here, in the world.
Oh the world, the world.
There is a Shambhala saying …. Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving Kindness, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, p.150. Slogan: Work with the greatest defilements first.
from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens …. J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, p. 211.
A good month, June. Feeling considerably better, with miles more energy. It has been amazing to look at the print out of my labs the last few weeks. Bloodwork shows much improvement, many items that were flagged too high or too low have settled into the normal category. Looking at the results each week (they come up on the computer a few hours after the labs these days) is like watching a soccer ball, soaring in slow motion, peeking and then descending. Hold your breath: where will it land, inside or outside the line?
My white blood cell count fell into the normal range fairly soon after starting treatment. But actually there are many kinds of white blood cells, and there are at least two kinds that are crucial indicators for CLL, or since each case is idiosyncratic let’s say for me at the moment. My neutrophils are slightly low – most likely induced by the revlimid. If they go much lower it means likely neutropenia (when you are dangerously at risk of infection, when you have to eat only cooked vegetables and fruit, wear a mask etc …. everyone probably knows someone who has had cancer and endured a period of neutropenia, induced by the chemo) but so far very borderline. Then there are lymphocytes. In the last month the absolute lymphocyte count has normalized. Marlene Millen, my primary care physician, said no wonder you are feeling better, when your lymphocyte count is up its like you have a constant virus, you are fighting it, day in and day out. My first reaction was Whoa, what would you know what it feels like. Stick to science, doctor, don’t presume to tell me how it feels. A flashback to hot flashes and the gynecologist (young, compassionate, efficient, female) who said, just think of it as a normal part of life, everyone gets hot, I get hot sometimes, and I just take a deep breath and drink some water and it passes. Well bully for you lady, may you wake one day in your best silk blouse suddenly sweating swinishly as you address a room full of bright-eyed and bushy tailed gynecology students. A moment ago they were hanging on your every word, now their eyes are fixed on the sweaty stained blouse clinging to your breasts. But Millen is not that gynecologist. She is tough and vigilant and frank. She is also a go-between, mediating between the various specialists I encounter, ping ponging from one to another. She was the one who really kicked me into treatment the first time. Listen, she said, Kipps will always say “it’s maybe time to start thinking about treatment, here are the options, of course it’s your choice.” “But I’m not Californian,” says Millen, “and not afraid to cut to the chase. You have put it off for long enough, and now you are saying well I think I’ll wait a while. You really need to start treatment NOW.” She must be about half my age, but she calls me “Sweetie.” “Well done Sweetie,” she will say when she thinks I have conquered the denial impulse and recognized some danger signal and given her a call. I find it very endearing to be called Sweetie. Bitter sweet like the Jane Campion movie.
Friends are curious and always asking: what is it like? Much of the time we look quite normal, when you go the CLL support group you might think you were in a room of perfectly healthy people, the swollen lymph nodes and spleens are not visible, nor the haywire white blood cells, cavorting platelets, nor the havoc being played in bone marrow. Nor the sense of utter exhaustion and fluishness. People often say to me “how are you? You look great!” On bad days this can be a trifle irritating, because typically they ask a question and answer it themselves, pronouncing you well and fine. This was a refrain after my dance with death just before our Boxing Day party, though on this occasion not in the least irritating. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas and this last year it was also the day after I came out of hospital. The cause was an infection that went haywire over night, landing me in the ER. Four nights in hospital and then I was fine, immensely relieved, and we went ahead with our Boxing day tamale party. Teddy Cruz gets the most delicious Guatamalan tamales from a source he refuses to reveal. They are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Unwrapping is at once a delaying mechanism, a stringing out of anticipation, and a process of revelation. As you unwrap the smells start swirling, not just one smell but many. The masa (or corn dough) inside the banana leaf wrapping is in turn wrapped around the filling—pork or chicken—and a sauce that is beginning to ooze out so you have to lick your fingers to get a taste of what is to come. You pause, fingers in your mouth, imagining. And then you break into the tamale. Inside there is pork and a piece of fruit, and even though there is a melting moment flavors are distinct—sharp, sweet, meaty. You scoop a bite of tamale into in your mouth, and enter heaven.
I have never met this woman who works in her kitchen at home and conjures these magical tamales into being. Teddy is the go-between. But I do know something about her. A week before Christmas her husband, who had been living and working in San Diego for years, was walking along the street not far from our house when a Homeland Security van pulled up and stopped him, requesting his papers. He had none. He was pulled into the van and deported from the country.
Although I sometimes find the “you look great” refrain irritating, receiving it as vacuous routine politeness, actually I know that when people say this they are more often than not performing an act of sympathetic magic: they are wishing that all is well, they want you to be well, they want to believe that everything is fine. And you participate in the performance. You are relieved to be alive and want to look as normal as possible. On Boxing Day I was particularly glad to be alive and celebrating. But the scary thing is the knowledge that it could be something like this that will take me out. Most CLL deaths (because CLL is a disease of the immune system) are from simple infections that flare up quickly and can’t be controlled. This is what Millen has always been trying to impress upon me: be alert to the signals, act immediately, don’t be so cavalier. She was pregnant and on leave when this happened, but when she came back she said, “Well done Sweetie, you got yourself to ER in time.”
Millen offered the metaphor of living with a virus. There is an aptness to it, it’s graspable, something one can offer to others. Kipps offered another. After my first treatment I said to him It’s like a miracle. I had no idea how awful I had been feeling. For years. This is the real normal and it’s a great sensation! Kipps said many patients say exactly the same thing. And he offered a metaphor: it’s like hiking up a hill with a back pack on your back. You start with a few pebbles in your back sack and after a while you add a few more, and then after another few miles the gremlin at your back tosses in just one more stone, but this one is a little larger, heavier. And so it goes, and as you climb you accommodate to the weight and the difficulty, and you come to imagine this as normal.
Rather than being affronted by Kipps’ simile, or his presumption in describing my sensations, I experienced a surprising sense of gratitude. His image was not exactly intricate or poetic, and certainly far from scientific. Perhaps though this is precisely the key to understanding how it works. How a simple metaphor describing an illness can spark delight. Why, I wonder. Clearly, on one level it’s because of recognition. It offers a mirror image, a confirmation of identity. Thus, it might be argued, it doesn’t do much to shift anything, simply confirms the way things are, the way you feel. And although I hate the kind of feel-good triumphalism that validates every feeling as evidence of self-worth nevertheless I think there is something crucial that happens when the language of medicine or science is blurred by the poetic impulse of metaphor. Many illnesses, particularly chronic ones, as well as many psychological states, are isolating, for the patient it’s hard to situate what they “feel” as anything other than ultra-personal. There are times when you think maybe it’s all in my head, or maybe I am inducing this illness because of the way I feel. So to have an image flashed up, from elsewhere, from someone else, that is evocative and feels accurate – this is like getting a hit of immunoglobulin. You want to shout out Yes! That’s it! Something surges through your system, is energizing, and it isn’t a drug. This kind of metaphor differs from the destructive metaphors that Susan Sontag so brilliantly described in Metaphor as Illness. Metaphor literally means a bridge between two things, two words, two images. The more unlikely the linkage the more powerful the metaphor, and the more it can be spun out the greater its capacity to inspire intrigue and wonder. But in addition to confirming the way you feel, metaphor has the potential to perform an intricate dance of difference. There is always that space of difference, of something incommensurate that stretches between the two unlikely images. A patient is and is not a hiker. In that tension, in the surprise, in the fact that the image flashes up from elsewhere – it is in this process that metaphor has the capacity to open your eyes, to introduce not just sameness and recognition, but newness. The drugs serve to lighten the load, but words too.
Newness and surprise are great medicines.
Much of the time I swim through Kipps’ language, feeling an idiot because I haven’t done my homework and there is still so much I do not understand, and sometimes despair that I ever will. And there’s not much time. And how will I ever make the right decisions about which therapy if I’m so clueless? He has a lot of patients to see on this one day of the week when he isn’t doing research or flying around the world talking about CLL. Often I call up Sheila Hoff, our CLL nurse and case manager, and she patiently spends hours going over it all, translating, helping with decisions by giving examples, and always she says, think about what kind of a person you are, how you want to live your life, which treatment will suit you best. Or I turn to a patient advocate site on the internet, like that of Chaya Venkat. Sadly she has announced this week that she is retiring. Her husband died of CLL. Though not a medical doctor she is a science writer and she started the site (http://updates.clltopics.org) to link her husband’s journey with others’, to mediate between the scientific community (and scientific language) and patients. For twelve years (eight while her husband was alive, four after, by herself) she has done a quite amazing job as a patient advocate, and as a magician of words. Understanding the language, yes, but something more. Finding the words. Saying the words. Her retirement blog is very poignant.
When I was looking for good crime novels (when not?), the kind you can lose yourself in, Patricia Montoya, my friend and neighbor (who has herself recently been through hell, survived a rough stem cell transplant, now back for the summer in her bitter-sweet home, Medellin), suggested I read Tijuana Straits. It’s a surf noir novel set primarily in the Tijuana River Valley, the area that stretches from Imperial Beach in the northeast corner of the Valley (and the US) along the border with Mexico. Twenty minutes from where I live. It begins in the Estuary, with the main protagonist whose charge is protecting certain migratory birds (most notably the western snowy plover and the light-footed clapper rail) discovering in the early morning dawn a woman in distress, who seems to have crossed by an illegal route where the border fence cuts the valley in half. Kem Nunn evokes the area vividly: the crashing surf, the Lighthouse in Las Playas on the Mexican side of the fence, Yogurt Canyon, Smuggler’s Gulch, the routes through the Valley on this side – Monument Road at the edge of Border Field State Park, Hollister Drive, Dairy Mart Road – and the maze of dirt roads and horse trails. I started reading the novel after a particularly hairy infusion, and experienced a peculiar delight in recognizing these places, even seeing these names in print, saying them out loud. There is the comfort of familiarity of course, but also there is always a slight, maybe infintesimal, mismatch between the image offered and your memories. There is a pleasure in puzzling out how the images cohere, form a landscape, in imagining even when you can’t be there. Nunn wrote this novel shortly before Homeland Security hacked into the landscape in 2003 so brutally, demolishing a mesa, filling in a canyon and building a new, second wall flanked by a perfectly asphalted wide road, a road where no one drives except the occasional border patrol vehicle. So sometimes he describes a landscape I hardly knew, and I try to conjure it, ripping out the new steel fence, and the asphalt road, and restoring the canyon in my mind.
You picture and imagine a landscape, a configuration of space shadowed always by various histories, some quite personal others social, unfolding oblivious to your personal existence. It is like this too with simple metaphors, thrown up in the haze of misrecognition, when you do not know how to make sense of this place where you find yourself.
For me the Boxing Day party was a celebration of being alive, of having escaped again, of friendship. The house was packed, the air was festive, people drifted in and out of the garden, unlikely people became entranced by the chickens and entered into chicken conversations. The tamales, however, as well as being delicious were a reminder that cancer is a card you can carry, it’s like having papers, if you are lucky enough to have medical care people are basically on your side, they want everything to be fine, they want you to be well. Of course you live with the fear of sudden, or slow, death. But as people who have cancer and Buddhists and even total strangers with whom you strike up a conversation in the long queque at the pharmacy remark: we are all going to die, death is a part of life, and anyway who knows you might walk under a bus tomorrow. True no doubt. But it is also the case that many people in this country live without any papers at all, let alone a cancer card, and they live in real and daily fear of a chasm opening up when and if the Homeland Security van pulls up one day as they stroll to work, to the shop, to neighborhood park.
I am just finishing round one of the 7 month regime. It has been a bit of a trial as they say in the old country, particularly the last week or so. Started with 3 weeks of the daily pill chemo – not too bad, fatigue sometimes overwhelming, other things manageable including a rash which came and went. But then last weekend it turned into serious torment. The hospital gang determined it was a reaction (a more sedate term than side effect) to either the chemo or one of the drugs given to fight the side effects of the chemo (probably the latter). I had stopped the chemo pills anyway (21 days on, 7 off) and so the other was also stopped but of course the torment continued. The only thing which gave some relief is a narcotic. OK at night, not too good when you have to work. Monday I worked till mid afternoon, came home, took the drowsy pill, konked out. Surfaced just before Judit, bearing chicken soup, came to fetch me for our Feldenkreis class. The class as always was great, lay on the floor and every so often dozed off, that seemed fine. An hour later at home, heating up the chicken soup I hear an almighty caffuffle in the yard, screeching and flapping, the air vibrating, dinosaurs returned to the earth. Two of the live chickens (as opposed to the chicken in the soup) were careening around the yard. I grabbed a flash light and broomstick and staggered out – the door to their run was wide open and so were all the doors to their little house. There in their house taking up most of the floor was a possum, an unusually pretty possum, colored tan and grey. And just above the possum was Sabrina on her perch shivering and shaking, silenced. With the aid of a broomstick I edged the possum out. He slipped down the ramp to the ground gliding with greater elegance than the hens ever do; they slither and hop and stomp down the ramp to freedom every morning. I had to chase the possum into the vegetable garden away from the other two chickens and away from Sabrina who was now performing in the yard like a yoyo emitting strangled clucks. Then I sat on the ground and lowered my weapons and listened to my own heart emitting strangled clucks. Chickens can’t see in the dark which means it is sometimes very easy to pick them up and sometimes impossible if they are in panic. Holly and Sabrina stopped running and I cooed to them making the chicken lullaby sounds that they know from night time when we do the final lock and check. Holly is the sook and so she was I think calmed by being picked up and cuddled and stroked and returned to her house. Sabrina next, no problem. Then Lula Mae, the little wild one, who disdains human contact, she did not wish to be touched or returned. Everytime I approached, crouched and cooing, she would be propelled from her own crouching position into a feathered ball of fury flying through the air away from the chicken run. Half an hour of cooing, begging, reprimanding and swearing ensued, half an hour of stalking and stumbling. Adrenalin had expelled all narcotic effects and the drama suppressed the itching. At last I held Lulamae in my two hands, a solid little body rather than feathered lightening. At last they were all back home, all doors sealed, a possum fate averted.
At last I got to eat my chicken soup.
The next day off we go, Jeffrey and I, to the hospital for the first infusion of chemo No.2. I have had this drug before (about 18 months ago) and tolerated it fairly well. Today it goes slowly but uneventfully – 5 hours or so after arriving the little packet on the IV stand is nearly empty. And then I start shivering. The PAs are there straight away, and lots of nurses and what they call “the kit”. Don’t worry they say, you’ve got the chills, it’s a common reaction, we are going to give you a drug and then you might sweat and it’ll be OK. Well then suddenly I started feeling really awful and panic stricken as though there were a possum in the room. I remember saying, I feel really bad. “what sort of bad?” someone asks. But I just feel the tar pits opening up and the possum lurking and can’t speak. The next thing I remember is the doctor shouting at me “Open your eyes! Open your eyes! Look at me!” and all I wanted to do was sink back into oblivion. Then time seemed to go very slowly and after a while they said, “you can close your eyes now and relax.” When I asked what happened they said you gave us a fright, you just lost consciousness and then you stopped breathing.
So for the next infusion, two days later, they fiddled with the cocktail, added some stuff (steroids), changed the secondaries (the drugs that guard against the side effects). I was really scared like I have never been before. I think that Jeffrey was even more scared. He said it was really terrifying when I lost consciousness and stopped breathing and the room was full of doctors and machines. It was much more terrifying for him than for me—I didn’t know what was happening and couldn’t see anything. I am glad he was there.
It went very slowly but without drama. And same yesterday. Yesterday was Sunday, nice and quiet in the infusion center. They had to change me from Saturday to make sure there was an oncologist on duty. My nurse said – oh glad to meet you, you are the Blue Code Lady. Blue Code she tells me is when a patient stops breathing.