Chicken Shit

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.

 

Notes

 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 Lion’s Roar

I board the plane in Austin, buckle up, and with eyes closed hear again the night train in Marathon. Movie fragments, night sounds, flicker across the screen of memory: the central Australian desert in Night Cries, black-and-white images in Killer of Sheep. The melancholic wail of the train in 1970s South Central L.A. evokes the blues and the great migration—south to west—across the U.S. in the nineteenth century. Listening to Country on the radio the day before, driving across the vast expanse of a small part of Texas. That wailing sound rises, from somewhere within, then fades across the surface of my skin. It feels like the after-purring of a large cat, when growling segues into purring, and purring slowly ripples into soundlessness, until all that remains is a somatic memory.

A lion’s roar can be heard five miles away…

On the runway in Austin all of a sudden lightning streaks across the darkening sky and hail stones start falling. The wing of the airplane is soon covered in whiteness. A shiver shoots through the plane, there is a quivering in the air. We prepare to disembark but then the crisis subsides as quickly as it erupted, the sky clears, the mood shifts. Sparks of electricity remain in the atmosphere, however, people start talking, there’s an expansiveness that wasn’t there before. I am sitting next to a young woman who endears herself to me by showing concern for the rooster who, in his overhead bin, has been jostled by a bag stuffed in haphazardly by a rough and rude young man. She tells me that her mum collects roosters and even has some from Soviet era Russia. I’m not really a collector, I demur. I can understand that, she says, he is clearly the one and only.

My surly hermeticism is instantly vanquished, the conviviality of airplane small talk sucks me into its orbit. Maria tells me that she volunteers as an animal rescuer, fostering creatures from the wild so that they can eventually be returned to something like a natural state. As a student she worked at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary. Occupying a large acreage in the hill country, this zoo is home to many domestic and exotic animals that were either rescued from, or unwanted by, their owners. Toads are rescued, goats, donkeys and snakes, but also coyotes, cougars, lions, tigers. All the big cats are endangered in their native habitat, and in quasi-legal captivation too, and so zoos often see themselves as places of preservation and restoration. A mode of domestic rewilding. Maria tells me a story about a lion. My jaw drops inch by inch until it reaches the floor and a great gaping hole opens up in my stomach.

Heading back to Austin Katie and I drove up from Marfa, through Alpine, passing the Big Bend Cowboy Church we connected with the 10, zipped past Fort Stockton this time, no sense of it as a town, of that kind young man who wouldn’t take any money for our cups of tea. But there were billboards and we had the local paper advertising above all else churches. Churches churches everywhere: Pecos County Cowboy Church, Templo Los Olivos, Jehovah Witness Kingdom Hall, Big Bend Tabernacle Church…

The story Maria tells me goes like this: A lion was rescued from a church. He had been drugged out of his mind, overfed and malnourished, confined to a small cage in a trailer, never exercised. When he was released and stepped on to the ground for the first time he buckled under his own weight. All the bones in his feet shattered.

Yesterday, the day after returning home to San Diego, I am scheduled for an infusion. All goes well. But afterwards as often happens I don’t feel so good and only want to be lying horizontal. I crave bed and a cup of tea. If I’d listened, as they say, to my body I’d be up and about today, but I wouldn’t have those pesach images in my mouth, tastes curling up and around and into every bodily crease and crevice. Temptation lured me out of the house last night. Persian rice with lima beans, salt water in tiny hand-painted bowls that Parastou’s brother brought from Turkey. Brian’s chicken broth was light and clear, the kreplach fluffy, saffron scent infiltrating the broth, rising steamily out of the soup, enveloping us all. Elana brought chopped liver and a fennel and orange salad sprinkled with mint leaves. And the lamb, the lamb melted in your mouth. We muddled our way through the service, arguing about interpretation. Why do we have to wait to start drinking before the candles are lit and the first part of the service performed? What do the bitter greens signify, why do we have to eat them rather than just look at them? Why are we eating lamb? The young ones were impatient – what does it matter? they asked insistently, all this ritual; but us old secular Jews and/or fellow travelers like myself, serially married to Jewish men, we want to remember, get it right, immerse ourselves together for an evening in the theatricality of the symbolic dimension.

But today I feel like I’ve run into a truck. Elvis appears to be ecstatic: a day in bed with company. Every so often he lopes out into the garden, rolls around in the dirt and then slouches back into the house, springs onto the bed, looks me intently in the eyes and says: tell me a story. A growl ripples through him, just below the skin, as he stretches danger flashes and then he retracts his claws, his paws curl inward and there’s a deep rumble, the echo of a roar, a vibration, as he settles next to me, chin leaning on the Mac Air. I love to stroke his pads, so soft, and the fur on his feet.

Five miles away…

In bed I retrace the drive home from Marfa, scrutinizing all the churches. The Yellow Pages list twenty four churches in Fort Stockton, including the World’s Greatest Psychic Ms Grace, and Saint Genevieve’s Wine. In the lovely hill town of Frederiksburg (population about ten and a half thousand) there are (about) Seven Lutheran churches, four Baptist, one Methodist, one Presbyterian, one Orthodox, one Episcopal, four Catholic, two Spirit-filled Churches, nine Christian-Other churches.

I roam the internet, searching for the rest of the story. Maria told me that the lion had been used in religious theater. He would be wheeled onto the stage with a lamb. She says there is a happy end to the story, they eventually managed to rehabilitate the lion, and in the zoo he can roam, as though in the wild. But I want to know more, which church, what sort of theater, what retribution?

And the Lion shall lie down with the Lamb.

I find a photo of a blonde man, a pastor as it turns out, in a pink jacket, open necked shirt and khakis, clutching in his arms a lamb. He stands on a stage and in some photos you can see, behind the pastor, a caged lion. Ed Young is a mega church pastor, best-selling author and televangelist. His Texas Fellowship Church has grown to an average weekly attendance of over 20,000 people, with branches in several cities including London, England.

The lion and the lamb were brought onto stage as part of his “Wild” sermon series (today I read that in the next few weeks Pastor Ed will be hosting a “Dog Days” event that will feature pet adoptions). “Let’s give it up for the lamb and the lion!” Ed Young reportedly said over the bleats of the increasingly agitated lamb. The lion, after batting his paws at the handlers a few times, spent the rest of the sermon lazing about in his cage. Jesus, explains pastor Ed, is both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God. A paradox. “If Jesus is just a lamb, he’s not threatening, he doesn’t get up in my grill, he doesn’t get in my business,” he said. Channeling Jesus’ lion-like nature, Young says, gives believers “Godfidence” and “spirit-led swagger.”

It seems the sermon is not an illustration of peace, or domesticity, of the lion lying down with the lamb, but an embodiment of a paradox.

Embodiment is something Ed Young specializes in. He is often described as “creative,” is a flamboyant performer, in his services he deploys props, gimmicks, visual theater. He is prone to putting into play everyday sayings and of dramatizing biblical metaphors through literalization and embodiment. He attracted nation-wide attention for his pulpit campaign in 2008 urging married couples to strengthen their bonds through a week of “congregational copulation.” This was described as a “sexperiment” (Sexperiment is the title of his best-selling book). In “How to move from whining about the economy to whoopee!” He paced on stage in front of a large bed, now and then flopping down and flipping through the pages of a bible. This was an enactment or embodiment of the metaphoric: Time for the church to put God back into the bed.

The lion, you might say, was simply a prop, a visual aid, an illustration of language. Functionally it was equivalent to the Ferrari which Ed Young drove onto the stage one Sunday as part of a sermon illustration for his series titled “RPM: Relationships. Passion. Marriage.” “God gave me a Ferrari,” Young said, “because I am a Ferrari. You’re a Ferrari too. God has given you a Ferrari.” This is a little confusing to me. But the thousands of worshipers do not seem to be confused. To get a handle on it I tell myself that to be or not to be is not the question here. The Ferrari it seems is the body, and at the same time you are a Ferrari because you are made in the image of God. But many people abuse this gift of the Ferrari-body by not letting God be the driver, not learning to drive as God would. Lots of defective dating and sex before marriage leads to “off-roading.” And one bad thing leads to another, it’s a slippery slope, you put one foot wrong and land up in the vice-like clinches of a real humdinger: You’re a self-centered sinner, you marry a self-centered sinner, you have kids who are also self-centered sinners and you end up with a “colossal collection of self-centered sinning.”

But luckily there’s a way out of this swirling vortex of sin.

“It’s time for a sexual revolution. It’s time to understand we’re Ferraris. It’s time to drive down God’s track.” Sex. Wealth. Godfidence. To promote Sexperiment Ed and his wife Lisa took part in a 24 hour “bed-in” on the church roof and streamed the event on the internet.

A lion’s roar can be heard…

There is, under the circumstances, and according to Maria, a happy ending to the story. Though some might say the ending is up in the air. A spokesman for the Fellowship church says the lion was back “at home” in his California preservation where he has thousands of acres on which to roam, as though in the wild. No permits were requested for the theatrical sermon because none were needed. No prosecutions ensued. The lion, in the media and internet coverage, simply disappeared into some mythical Californian savannah, or into thin air.

Five miles…

This deployment of metaphor is not much different to the sex education we used to get at school: the body is a car, you must learn to care for it, respect it, and above all you have to learn to drive slowly. But Pastor Ed’s lesson is much more vivid and compelling. In addition it promises a reward: good and proper sex, inviting God into the (domestic) bedroom, can make you rich.

The lion and the Ferrari. Each a thing, a prop, a visual aid, a charged image. The theatricality of the symbolic dimension. A thing, but transformed from thingness through embodiment and rhetorical sleight of hand. I am a Ferrari: by a stretch of the imagination I can almost grasp this, the rhetorical intention anyway, but channeling Jesus’ lion-like nature via this caged and abject creature, receiving “Godfidence” and “spirit-led swagger”: this is harder for me to envision, to realize as embodiment.

Why are the herbs so bitter, why are we eating lamb? Val Plumwood, the Australian ecophilosopher who was death rolled three times before being released from the crocodile’s jaws later wrote, in an essay called “Meeting the Predator,” that it is only when we can consider ourselves as meat for other animals that we can imagine living in peace on this planet.

A lion’s roar can be heard for five miles…

All the way home, and for days afterward the stifled roar of that lion is trapped in my body. The wailing of the train and the roaring of the lion. I write this story but do not read it aloud to Elvis as is my wont. This is a story I cannot tell out loud.

 

Notes

His Texas Fellowship Church…… These numbers are provided in Wikipedia, but the entry is signaled as having problems. You can get a sense of the huge congregation by taking a look at the site where Pastor Ed streams live 24/7: edyoung.com.

“God Gave Me a Ferrari….” http://www.christianpost.com/news/pastor-drives-ferrari-into-church-for-relationship-series-49215/. Accessed 16 April 2014

“Jesus was called and is called, the Lion of Judah …..” and “If Jesus is just a lamb…”

http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/furry-fellowship-grapevine-pastor-ed-young-brings-lion-lamb-easter-sermon Accessed 16 April 2014

Val Plumwood, the Australian ecophilosopher… The essay, “Meeting the Predator” is in a collection of her essays, The Eye of the Crocodile

 

 

 

Some Musings on Metaphor

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.