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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why Keep Going When Everything Sucks and You're All Alone, Anyway?

Sir Ernest Shackleton's Ship, The Endurance

Lately I've been given an opportunity to examine, up close and personal, the age-old question, Why keeping going when everything sucks and you are all alone, anyway?

People who get cancer diagnoses will often say, "I knew I had to stay alive for my children … spouse … parents … my work … "

For whom do spinsters stay alive? I don't have any cats.

I've been remembering a reaction I had to a Holocaust memoir I read some years back.

The author of this particular Holocaust memoir was not in a camp, but bouncing around Europe, joining resistance groups, escaping by the skin of her teeth, hoping for papers to Palestine, hopes not working out. She – this woman on the page – despaired. As I was reading, I found myself insisting, with a furious urgency, "Don't do it. You and I will never meet. But if you can get through this without offing yourself, you will have won a victory for the good side, and for me." Though things never got any better, and even her life after the war turned out pretty sucky, she didn't give in to her despair, she did go on, and somehow, I felt strengthened, nourished, and vindicated.

I've never met this woman. I can't even remember her name or the name of her memoir. Obviously it was not one of the famous Holocaust memoirs. She can never know that I read her book.

But I had this sense, while reading her story, that her story and my story were different chapters in the same, big story. That by living through the crap she lived through, she advanced, not just her own life, but the human story.

This inkling is obviously not rational, not grounded in material reality. Material reality tells us that we are only connected by our senses. We can only be connected to those we hear, see, smell, touch, or taste. I can be inspired by the survivor's story, but the human story is not advanced in any way. Similarly, as I struggle alone, I'm not contributing to anyone else's struggle. The Dark Side – whatever it is – is not lessened when some anonymous nobody, unseen by any witness, unrecorded by any scribe, not televised by any reality show – decides to take up the burden of another, lousy day, and to smile, and to be kind.

Darwin tells us that we support players on our own genetic team. We urge on people who look like us because we want our own DNA to win food, territory, money, power.

But when it comes to life story, to people struggling against darkness, we humans support across gene pools, across great distances. We urge on even complete strangers: Don't quit. Don't give up. Hang on one more day. We say this to strangers; we say this even to people whom we know well enough not to like.

Certainly people do this while reading news accounts and non-fiction books. And we do this with the internet, too. Hang on. One more day. Don't give up. You are worth something.

We do this to be nice. But the urgency that people exhibit when encouraging others defies mere niceness.

When I was reading that Holocaust memoir and urging on the author, I was not being nice. The author could never know my desire that she kept going.

I think we do believe, somehow, that all we humans are on the same team, and that we do face a common enemy – Satan or Death or Evil or the lack of enlightenment or whatever you want to call it. And that one of our tools in this struggle is story – my life story, your life story. And when we live out our life stories with faith, hope, and love, we advance, not just our own lives, our own stories, but the whole team. That when some anonymous person somewhere on planet earth is brave, that makes it easier for me to be brave.

I think we think this because I've seen, so many times, people who otherwise might seem blasé or callous go out of their way to encourage strangers wrestling with despair. They weren't just being nice. They were urging others on with an urgency that said, "Your decision matters to me. If you face your problems with courage and determination, it will enrich my life."

If nothing else, that human urge to urge each other on, even if we are strangers to each other, defies the conviction of aloneness, of "It doesn't matter what I do because I am alone." Just by being human, we are not alone. We are characters in each other's stories. And we may be writing a communal story.

What a team member does matters to the rest of the team. In this case, anyway, isolation really is an illusion.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"The Devil Collected Rent": An Autumn Night in Bloomington, Indiana

Beech. Fagus Sylvatica. Jean-Pol Grandmont. Source

The autumn here has been exceptionally mild and dry and blessed with a vibrant display of Bloomington's multiform leaves, coming into brilliance in staggered fashion, staggered in palette and time.

Maples first and last: a red swatch here and there in the green suspended ocean till one day you're walking in light filtered through rippling shimmering lemon; the gaudy, blood-dipped sugar maples; the sweet gum came into force mid-season, whole trees defying any chromatic logic; an outer bank would be bronze, inside, like a mango under peel, yellow and red; other gums were patchworks of true, strong colors, no shading, just abrupt green slash red slash yellow slash bronze; the sassafras had a brief, stunning season; I was doing dishes one day and the small, spindly sassafras in the backyard stunned me like a house afire -- smoldering, velvet, the next rain ripped it all away.

What the sallow, yellow mulberry lacked in bold color it made up for in shape, each leaf edged unique, in the shape a delicate gold chain might make if thrown, randomly, on a smooth table.

In leaves of the low-key beeches vibrant green retreated to the spine and veins; yellow haloed this, and a crisp border of dry beige rippled round the leaf. Whole trees looked like muted tartan.

Staggered chronologically: so that just last weekend, taking a break from the Bohunk paper, I could look up from under a gingko surrounded by naked twigs and be captivated by gem-like yellow Asiatic fans glittering against an azure heartland sky. The elm, (maybe slippery?) alone still sports a full head of green leaves.

This night, though, the devil collected rent. Wind; the clatter of empty garbage cans rolling, the rat tat tat of dry, dead things beating against other dry, dead things; worrisome sounds that drowned out all others, that made you feel the need, no matter how warm you were under your Pendleton wool and how suddenly nipple-firming chill the ambient air, to get out of bed and check things; sounds irregular and strange that made you afraid to do so. Rain came in thick sheets, leveled off, came again. I fell in and out of a cloudy something nothing like sleep. Ghosts. Skeletons. Memories.

***

A
fter earning my MA, I left Berkeley, California, and moved east to Bloomington, Indiana, for a PhD. The above passage is from a letter I wrote from Bloomington, to Berkeley.
Bloomington gets 44.2 inches of rain a year; Berkeley, 25. Berkeley's trees are often eucalyptus, an alien that can't support local flora or fauna. Even where there are trees, there is biotic desert; you can hike through a dense grove of Berkeley eucalyptus and hear neither birdsong nor insects; nothing but your footsteps and eucalyptus limbs groaning in each breeze.

I fell in love with Bloomington's trees and wrote of them often in my letters back to Berkeley.

The storm that I described in the letter felt portentous. Shortly after that night, I learned that my father was dying, that the professor for whom I worked would not allow me to travel to his deathbed, and life as I knew it stopped. I write more about these life-changing events in the essay "Small Miracle."


Black Gum. Nyssa Sylvatica. Source.

Sassafras.  Sassafras Albidum. Source.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

It Was a Miracle! ... Or Was It? Maybe. Maybe It Was.

Is this an angel? How do you know? Souce

Could you meet an angel standing in line here? Why not?
Source & Source

One day I saw a famous atheist on TV and he pissed me off and I emailed him a snotty, belligerent, sarcastic email. To my surprise he sent me back a very charming, almost flirtatious email. That night we began a debate about God; it rapidly segued into an erotic relationship. "Save Send Delete" tells that story.

People ask me now if I ever changed the atheist's mind.

I did. For however brief a moment.

A synchronous event involving him and me was so beyond chance it knocked him off his center and he admitted that he felt that there was more going on than meets the eye, or the conscious human mind.

***

Synchronicity. Numinous events. Beyond-chance encounters. Even miracle cures.

How spectacular do these events have to be to change a skeptic's mind?

A terminally ill man pours Lourdes water on his exposed brain tumor. He recovers. I read that in a medical text decades ago. Never forgot it. Is that enough to convince a skeptic? I think it convinced the doctor who wrote the book.

A woman dreams of her husband coming to her, telling her he's sorry, telling her she'll be okay. Somehow, she knows he is dead. She wakes, paces the house. The phone rings. Her husband is, indeed, dead. Is that enough evidence to convince a skeptic? I've met former skeptics who have lived such stories and been changed for life.

***

I've experienced events like these, and my friends and loved ones have reported events like these to me, all my life. I can't not believe in them, any more than I can't not believe in weather. Water is falling from the sky. I am getting wet. I believe.

***

So, I've just been told that I have cancer, and I'm going through the toughest patch of my life. I am more sad and frightened and lost than anyone who knows me can even begin to imagine. The other day I screamed and spat on the floor: two things I have never done before.

A persistent memory keeps coming to me. Why this memory? I do not know.

At the time, this event felt like a miracle. It felt like angels.

I'm going to tell you this story, and you are going to make fun of me.

Because this isn't a story about, say, a man pouring Lourdes water on his tumor and being cured. This is a much smaller, simpler story.

You're going to say, "Give me a break. There's NOTHING miraculous in that story!"

Or, you're going to have pity on me. You're going to think, "Babe, you are so far gone, you're grasping at straws. I'll humor you."

Okay, you can think that if you want. But you'd be wrong. So there.

And – listen – I'm going to end this story in a way that even if you could never be a believer, you will have to agree that miracles are possible.

***

I was a graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington. My experience there was hell. I've written about that enough elsewhere, including in the essay "Small Miracle."

Let's just say if I could rewrite my life, I would become a meth addict, marry a syphilitic bigamist with a basement full of taxidermied x-wives, and invest my life savings with Bernie Madoff before I would ever repeat the nightmare I lived on the campus of Indiana University, Bloomington.

So.

The events I will describe, below, happened one summer. A hot summer. A really hot summer. This is the Midwest. A skillet baking under the sun, a dry poplar leaf trembling in wait for the next tornado. The only cool it will give you till autumn are the thunderstorm hailstones that pelt down on your shoulders, making you wonder when the frogs, locusts, and rivers of blood show up. The Midwest knows how to do summers that make you beg for mercy.

This summer was a particularly dark chapter. Several loved ones died within months of each other: my mother, whom I held in my arms as she died, my best friend in Bloomington, David, whom I write about in the book, a very sweet 25 year old gay rights activist, Eagle Scout and elementary schoolteacher. My oldest living relative, my best online friend, and a friend I had left behind in another state.

This was all combined with more noxious academic obstacles I won't even describe here.

One good thing. I was working a job I really loved. My boss, Moira, was a sweetheart. She, Mandy and I all worked in a very cramped, windowless office in the university's main library. I was around books all day, and very dear coworkers. A plus.

But I was just so sick of IUB. I felt so brittle, so tense, I thought I'd snap. I had no more arrows in my quiver to fight the final battles that would get me out of town to a better place.

And the funniest thing happened.

And now, as I face cancer, thoughts of this event just keep coming back to me.

What happened? Did a dead relative return in a dream and tell me which convenience store was selling the winning lottery ticket? Did I see a talking bush that burned, but was not consumed? Did I levitate? Predict an election outcome? Meet Mr. Right?

Nope.

Okay, enough build up. Here it is, and nothing I can type here will make it sound any less trivial, any less silly. And nothing I can type here can encapsulate how magical it felt at the time, and how magical memories of these events feel.

Strangers smiled and waved.

Yeah, that's it. Strangers smiled and waved.

No, no, not that kind of smile. Not that kind of wave.

People I'd never seen before, and would never see again, went out of their way to make contact with me, to meet my eyes, and to smile at me in a way that said, "I KNOW you. I APPRECIATE you. I know what you are facing. I know it's a drag. And I know – and I know in your heart and soul that you know this, too – we know that it is going to be okay. No matter how bleak it looks now, it is going to be okay."

These weren't the smiles that strangers smile at each other. These were the smiles that confederates, compadres, co-conspirators for the good, smile at each other, when they are downed behind enemy lines, and they run across a comrade, and they want to convey warmth, encouragement, and connection, without breaking cover.

Okay, now that I've typed it all out, it does sound crazy. It does sound like nothing, like I was making a mountain out of a molehill.

But here's the thing – there have been any number of moments in my life when I would have loved to have that experience, and I didn't. I had it that summer at IUB. It lasted for a month or more or less; I don't remember exactly.

So, if this were just a product of my stressed mind over-interpreting strangers' smiles, why not before this time? Why not after?

And Moira, my boss, and Mandy, my coworker, two women I'm still in touch with, never said to me that it was obvious that I was going off the deep end. I never missed a day of work, was never late, and I was more productive than any previous employee in the same position.

I remember two of these smiles. Once, I was in line at the Bloomington Bagel Company, where I used to go for lunch. The man in front of me, looking very much like any given man in the Midwest – white, conservatively dressed, about my age, reasonably attractive but not movie star handsome, suddenly turned around, and, without his eyes wandering around the room for even the briefest second, he targeted my eyes, made eye contact with me, and smiled. Enthusiastically. Beautifully. Beneficently.

I said nothing, and neither did he. After we shared this smile, he turned back around, and we made no further contact.

???

Another event:

It was high summer. IUB's campus was deserted. It just lay there motionless, baking under the sun. I was walking from my job, across campus, to the main drag in town.

Up in the distance, a bit ahead of me, was a beautiful, young, blonde woman in what looked to me like a red, designer dress. Not a ball gown, but, rather, a chic little-black-dress type dress, except it was red.

What the hell was she doing on campus? No one else was around. No classes, no conferences, no games.

There was no way she could have heard or seen me. We were separated by the length of oh, say, two large suburban homes with lawns.

And then, as if she were quite conscious of what she was doing, she stopped, turned around, immediately made eye contact with me across the distance between us, and smiled, and waved.

What the … ???

I was really confused. I had no idea what to make of this. I walked on and so did she. Campus buildings intervened. I was approaching the student center, a large, rambling building surrounded by lawn.

Heck, there she was again. Again, up ahead of me, again, that distance between us. And she did it again. Moved as if planned, as if quite conscious, turned, made eye contact with me, smiled, enthusiastically, warmly, smiled, and waved. In an equally casual and unhurried manner, she stopped, turned back around, and went on her way.

Yes, I did think she was probably an angel.

Or, I thought, maybe these smilers and wavers are all just Hoosiers, just humans, but some angel whispered in their ear, in a frequency they could subconsciously understand, "See that human over there? Your fellow human? Having a tough time. Give her a smile. Give her a wave. That's right; that's the spirit. Thanks."

Because it wasn't just the oddness of it all. It wasn't just the smile, the wave.

It was how sweet and good I felt after each one of these stranger-smile-waves. I felt as if my finger had been dipped in the celestial honeypot. I felt as if my quiver's stock of arrows had been renewed, and I could get it together, slay the final dragons, and get the heck out of Bloomington, which I did shortly do.

***

Okay, so maybe I was nuts, and still am.

But here's the thing. Even if you are a skeptic, even if you insist on material reality being the only thing there is, this story is still magical.

Complete strangers smiled at me during a crappy period in my life.

And I took spiritual food from these encounters.

These brief smiles made my life better.

The blonde in the red dress wasn't an angel? But a mere mortal?

Okay.

I remember distinctly a complete stranger whose name I'll never know, about whom I'll never know anything, except that she was blonde and looked good in a high quality red dress.

She lifted up my life.

I am grateful to her to his day.

It's something, isn't it? That we humans can touch each other, forever, we can sustain life, we can keep each other going through tough times, just with that much spontaneous, simple, kindness.

Pretty damn miraculous to me.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Does the American Cancer Society "Road to Recovery" Program Redline Poor Communities? No, but ...

Cancer patient seeks ride. Is this a job for Bond, James Bond?
Or will the American Cancer Society "Road to Recovery" program help? 

Does the American Cancer Society's "Road to Recovery" program redline cancer patients who live in poor and minority communities?

Redlining is the denial of services to people who live in poor and minority areas.

The American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program's webpage says this about the program:

"Every day thousands of cancer patients need a ride to treatment, but some may not have a way to get there. The American Cancer Society Road to Recovery program provides transportation to and from treatment for people who have cancer who do not have a ride or are unable to drive themselves. Volunteer drivers donate their time and the use of their cars so that patients can receive the life-saving treatments they need."

***

I was recently diagnosed with cancer. I do not have family. I am low income and I do not own a car. In any case, I'd need to travel after surgery and other medical procedures that might make it challenging for me to drive myself.

I asked for rides on facebook.

"Don't worry!" A caring facebook friend, herself a cancer survivor, promised me. "The American Cancer Society has a Road to Recovery program that will provide you with rides!"

Several other facebook friends, themselves cancer survivors or in touch with cancer survivors or social workers, all promised me that the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program would help.

I contacted the American Cancer Society a month ago. I was asked where I live. I told them. I was immediately informed that I could not get rides with the American Cancer Society Road to Recovery program.

I was rather shocked. I live in a heavily populated region of a densely populated state. If the ACS Road to Recovery did not provide rides here, where would they provide rides???

I continued to contact the American Cancer Society, asking to speak to other personnel. I ended up speaking to a very nice man named Erik. He researched the question from all angles. After a month of this back-and-forth, after a month of my begging and pleading and tearing my hair out – never mind chemo – Erik informed me this afternoon that there was no way I could get any ride with the American Cancer Society Road to Recovery program, even if I took a bus to a nearby town and was picked up there, rather than in my low-income neighborhood.

I feel so sad. I'm already fighting so many battles on so many fronts. To be turned down by this world famous humanitarian organization. It's hard. It's just another negative, negating message I need to overcome.

And I just don't know what to make of this. Again, I live in a heavily populated region of a densely populated state: New Jersey.

I know this much – I live in an almost all minority city. Spanish, not English, is the first language of many streets in this city. Most people are Hispanic, or Black, or Muslim, from the Middle East. And this is a high crime area. Two men were shot to death right in front of my apartment building just one year ago.

I don't know if my living in a majority minority city has played any role in my being excluded from the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery Program.

I do know that the cancer diagnosis was a crushing blow.

I do know that my life is already challenging enough. I live in a poor region because I'm struggling with big challenges.

As people who have read "Save Send Delete" know, I've already wrestled with a catastrophic illness, one that ruined me financially and pushed me out of the fulltime job market. I'm struggling to get back in. I spent this entire morning looking at job listings and applying for jobs. I have a PhD. I'm a published writer. I don't spend my free time doing drugs and cheating on welfare. I teach part-time – oh, what I would not give for a full-time job!

I don't carry a switchblade and I don't have poor people cooties. I just can't afford a car. And I need a ride to cancer treatment.

My neighbors are similar to me. Yes, there are criminals in this city. But there are also plenty of young people, as innocent and bright-eyed as young people in wealthy suburbs, plenty of women who go off in their nurse's aide uniforms at six every morning, on foot, in summer's heat and over winter snow and ice, to work the seven-to-three shift, plenty of physically handicapped people who will never scale the corporate ladder, but who are otherwise as human as anyone.

Erik repeatedly assured me that the American Cancer Society does not redline people in poor and minority communities. I believe him.

But I'd like to suggest to Erik, and to the American Cancer Society, through this blog, a couple of things.

First, given that the American Cancer Society implies that it has this aspect of cancer covered, many well-meaning people, from my facebook friends to social workers at the hospital, felt that they could refer me to the American Cancer Society, and that that would solve everything.

I think the American Cancer Society is honor-bound to make more clear in its communications that it *doesn't* have this aspect of cancer covered. That people fall through the cracks, and that more needs to be done to provide rides to cancer patients.

Second, I strongly urge the American Cancer Society to take a look at the ride needs of people in low income communities. It seems a given that poor folk would be the ones most in need of rides.

If you'd like to contact the American Cancer Society on this matter, the contact information is below:

1-800-227-2345

You can also email the American Cancer Society at this webpage:

http://www.cancer.org/Aboutus/HowWeHelpYou/app/contact-us.aspx

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

No Death, No Disease, No Destruction: A Lighthearted Blog Post

Who I'd interview.
(I know it should really be "whom," but this is supposed to be a more lighthearted blog post.)

What I'd eat.
No word that it causes cancer. YET!
Cynthia Hill, author of Idol Hands, has invited me to participate in the Liebster Blog Award activities, and I do so with pleasure.

Here are the Liebster Award requirements:

1.) The person who's nominated must post eleven facts about themselves.
2.) Answer the eleven questions the tagger has given you.
3.) Choose eleven people and link them on your blog post.
4.) Create eleven questions for the people you tagged.
5.) Tell them you've tagged them on their blog.
6.) No tag backs!

***
Here are Cynthia's eleven questions for me:

1. What is your "comfort" book?

My comfort reading is not a book, but, rather, the New York Times. If I have a fresh, fragrant copy of the day's New York Times in my hands, at least one thing is going right in the universe, no matter what else is going on.

2. Which author would you most like to interview?

Luke, the Greek physician who penned 28% of the New Testament. When you read Luke, you immediately get it that he loved women, and I mean "love" in the sense of cared about, was close to, and respected. The insights he offers into the inner reaches of women's hearts, and women's work in the world, are extraordinary.

Luke's knowledge of the wide world is also awesome. Luke "names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without error." Luke "names key historical figures in the correct time sequence as well as correct titles to government officials in various areas: Thessalonica, politarchs; Ephesus, temple wardens; Cyprus, proconsul; and Malta, the first man of the island."

Luke had a mind and a heart, and he had a huge impact on world history. Would love to meet him. I'm picturing a very suave, urbane, first century version of, say, Patrick Stewart.

3. Celery with peanut butter or Cheez Whiz?

ShopRite all natural super chunky peanut butter.

4. What's your writing fuel?

Used to be Diet Coke but I was just diagnosed with cancer and people are warning me that Diet Coke causes cancer. So I guess I'll have to switch to cocaine.

5. What was the worst book you ever read?

The worst book I've ever read is probably Harold Robbins' "79 Park Avenue," which I tear apart in this Amazon review.

6. Whose story do you think would make a good novel?

Witold Pilecki. You can't ever, ever surrender to cynicism in a world with men like Witold Pilecki in it. He volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to aid anti-Nazi resistance. He later fought the Soviets and was tortured and murdered by them. It's only recently that his story has come to light. There's a review of a new non-fiction book about him at this link.

7. If you were a tree, what kind of a tree would you be?

Alas, I wish I could say it were a graceful willow, but I'm afraid it would be a battered old oak.

8. You're going on a double date with a famous couple: who would they be?

Jane and Rochester. If you don't know who Jane and Rochester are, you are missing so much! More about Jane Eyre here.

9. Have you travelled to a place, just because of the book?

No, but that's a cool question.

10. Are you a night owl or a morning person?

Morning lark. If I haven't written by noon, the day is shot.

11. When you were a kid, was the first day of school a celebration or a trauma?

Hated school. We used to call the day before the start of the school year our "last night awake." Pretty grim!

***
Here are the blogs I'm nominating:

L-8 The Ghost Blimp

Otto Gross is trying to piece together the fate of a mysterious World War II vessel. Otto has an interesting personal story, as well. His dad was a Nazi soldier. That story is here. World War II buffs will enjoy Otto's blog.

Lightning and Ashes

John Guzlowski, a prize-winning poet, blogs about his parents' experiences as Nazi slave laborers.

Where Earth Meets Sky

Kimberly Wachtel, a talented artist, shares her joyous, colorful creations.

Anna in Technicolor

Anna Grzankowski is a skilled seamstress. She lives out my needlework fantasies.

Sue Knight's Blog

Sue Knight is fascinating to read. She is a Jehovah's Witness, and also a very talented writer. Her observations of the British coast, where she lives, are often poignant and crystal clear. They make you want to live there, and make you feel as if you do.

Oriana-Poetry

Oriana Ivy is a smart, intense, talented poet. She writes about religion, but is an atheist. She writes about suicidal despair, and the embrace of life. She can be addictive!

Looking Around

Karen Wyle is smart. I like that in a woman.

Off Kilter

Linda Wisniewski's blog. From Small Press Reviews, "Off Kilter is a fine testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the healing power of the written word."


From Wilno to Worcester

Barbara "Basia" Proko is a genealogical detective. She uncovers the key clues that turn the mystery of ancestry into a clear history. 

***
Here are my questions for these folks:

1.) If you could not be a writer, and you had to be some other artist – a singer, a painter, a mime, a puppeteer – what kind of artist would you be and why? (For Kim and anyone else who is primarily a visual artist who also writes: reverse the question. If you could not be a visual artist, what other art would you choose?)

2.) Who would be the dream interviewer to quiz you about your work? Sixty Minutes' Mike Wallace? Fresh Air's Terry Gross? Johnny Carson? Larry King? Entertainment Tonight?

3.) Your favorite childhood fictional hero or heroine.

4.) Have you lived up to what you dreamed when you read about your favorite childhood fictional hero or heroine?

5.) Your happiest moment as a writer.

6.) Are you a tuxedo / evening gown writer, a broken-in jeans writer, a nude writer, a flowing caftan writer … ?

7.) Your personal writing deity?

8.) Hard copy, screen, handwritten in ink, typewriter & whiteout?

9.) If you had to choose between your writing moving people deeply, or your writing educating people factually, which would it be?

10.) Has being a writer helped or hurt your romantic life?

11.) How do you reward yourself?

***
Last but not least. Cynthia asks for eleven facts about me:

1.) My book, "Save Send Delete," is the true story of my debate and love affair with a celebrity atheist.

2.) One of the first to support the book was Francis S. Collins, who decoded the human genome.

3.) I was just diagnosed with cancer, which has put a crimp in my attempts to promote the book.

4.) I'm actually a very boring person and coming up with eleven interesting facts about me is more than I can manage!

5.) As a little ritual, I always check to see that all the days and dates are there, in order, before I buy a new calendar. I consciously didn't do that this past year. My daily desk calendar pages stop the day I first went to the doc for the biopsy, and they start up again the day I got the final results after surgery.

6.) I've lived on four continents and spoken ten languages.

7.) The week I spent in Burma all I spent was money I gained by trading in black market whisky and cigarettes.

8.) My mother was born in a river. Her mother was taking a break from summer harvest.

9.) My mother was later rescued from drowning in that very river by her next door neighbor, a Jewish boy. He perished during the Nazi occupation.

10.) If I learned that the world would end in hours (and no one else knew) I would spend my last hour on earth buying puppies at a pet store, and playing with them in a park.

11.) I love produce – fruits and vegetables – passionately and regard any visit to a good produce store as a mini vacation of colors, shapes, textures, smells, tastes, and bargains.

Monday, September 3, 2012

"You Don't Deserve to Live."

source

As a cancer patient, I am now doing daily affirmations. I talk about this in a previous blog post, here.

I'm taking advantage of the many lists of affirmations available on the web. For example at the bottom of this page, one finds these affirmations and others:

I have everything it takes to heal completely.

I am healing every cell of my body at every moment of my life.

It is easy for me to relax completely.

I also tried composing a couple of my own affirmations.

One of the first affirmations I came up with was,

I deserve to live.

I tried to say it out loud. I couldn't. Instead, I cried.

Just attempting to say those words – "I deserve to live" – out loud, as I face a health crisis, turned me inside out.

Some big part of me is convinced that I don't deserve to live.

I was shocked. When composing my own list of affirmations, I did not think that "I deserve to live" would be a hard sentence for me to say out loud. I did not think it would make me cry. I did not think that any attempt to speak this sentence aloud would force me into a confrontation with shadowy, unknown regions of myself.

After all, I have been fighting really hard, every day, for the past couple of months, to survive this diagnosis. I've been begging, demanding, submitting, enduring.

I didn't know that "You don't deserve to live" was in there. I really didn't.

I don't know enough about the mysteries of the body to know if that part of me that is convinced that I don't deserve to live will interfere with my recovery.

I hope not. I know I have to die someday. I just really don't want to die of cancer. It has taken so many of my loved ones, in such miserable ways. I hate cancer. I don't want to do anything to let it have me. I have been spending the last couple of days struggling, really hard, with this message: You don't deserve to live.

***

I debated with myself about blogging about this.

Part of me said, I am a writer, and it is a writer's job to speak the truth. This experience isn't just about external enemies, or internal tumors. It isn't just about confronting the snakepit of St. Joseph's Hospital, and, with Robin's help, finding a better hospital, a real hospital.

It isn't just about murderous cells being identified and chopped out or burned up.

It is also about a confrontation with my own soul, and my own soul's dark regions.

It's my job, a writer's job, to say that.

That little internal debate did not convince me to blog about this.

Rather, this is what decided it for me: I googled the phrase, "I don't deserve to live," in quotation marks, so that only that exact phrase would turn up.

I was astounded. Hundreds of thousands of internet pages turned up.

The very first page was from Yahoo Answers. An anonymous young person, identified only as "Taylor," posted the following message:

"the truth is...i'm just wasting air and water. i can't think of one good thing about me right now. i don't have many friends, i'm not very good at the sport i do, people don't think i'm pretty, i've never been asked out once, never been crushed on, grades are slipping a little, hard time with economy. what's the point? idk what to do. everyone has such a better life than me. i just figured i should end it soon. i'm too depressed and nobody knows."

Reading Taylor's post ripped my heart right out of my chest.

All I want to do is hug that girl and insist to her that she must never entertain such thoughts.

Destroying angel mushroom. Source: Wikipedia. 
I'm a teacher and I've certainly counseled students who were thinking dark thoughts.

I remember one day, just on a whim, I picked some destroying angel mushrooms I passed on a grassy hillock while walking to class. Destroying angel are very beautiful mushrooms: ghostly white and elegantly formed. I mentioned to my students that just one bite of a destroying angel can be fatal, with little hope for rescue. I then brushed the mushroom to the side of the desk, and began class, and didn't give it another thought.

The last day of that semester, a student approached me. He was a good looking, healthy, well dressed young man who had done well in class and never given me any trouble.

As part of our last day celebrations, I read his tarot cards. I did it for fun.

I saw some troubled cards in his reading and mentioned that, not thinking that this could be reflective of reality. He was obviously a successful student.

"That day you brought the mushroom into class," he began in a very flat, mater-of-fact way, "I had to fight myself not to get up and grab it out of the trash where you tossed it and eat it."

I gasped and stared at him, wide-eyed. I controlled myself enough not to say anything.

He went on. He had been suicidal. He mentioned some life stressors. They were the kind of things we all deal with. For whatever reason, they were overwhelming him.

We talked about the practical things you talk about in that kind of a conversation. Of course I mentioned counseling and told him that though he was no longer my student, I would remain available to him if he needed someone to talk to. He assured me that the crisis had passed, and that his obsession with the mushroom's poison had alerted him to the fact that he needed to do something.

Some students are the walking wounded. You can conclude from their clothes or demeanor or lack of friends that they support actively bleeding injuries and would benefit from attention.

This student was not the walking wounded. He was not conspicuous. And he wanted to die that badly. Was convinced that he ought to die.

I learned something from that encounter.

On a superficial level, I learned that one can never tell what another is going through.

On a deeper level, what did I learn? Is there a Beast out there, ready to prey on us, no matter how lucky we are, ready to tell us we do not deserve to live? And must we combat this Beast, as surely as we combat the more conventional ones – hunger, cold, isolation, chaos, cancer?

***

The Beast uses logic to make its case to me. It relies on verifiable facts. Readers of "Save Send Delete" are aware of all of these facts.

I am not someone who has demonstrated value to my fellow humans.

I was an abused kid. I was not of value to the people who conceived or the woman who gave birth to me. In fact she threatened to kill me with frequency. I have no great professional success to my name. I am not married. Men have not seen value in me. I'm a spinster. No kids. When I die, no one will miss me.

Objectively, in a Darwinian sense, I have no value.

In the old lifeboat scenario – whom to throw off (or cannibalize) in the lifeboat in order that the other passengers may live, I'd be the first thrown overboard, or turned into human sushi.

This is what the Beast reports to me. It repeats this data over and over. It tells me it is merely toting up the pertinent, objective, Darwinian tally.

***

I asked this question of the celebrity atheist with whom I carried on the debate in "Save Send Delete."

The Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in that it places as central to its teaching that God loves each person passionately and equally, regardless of gender, birth, nation, wealth or health.

In fact, Jesus is constantly healing people more sensible observers might deem unworthy of life. Jesus not only heals a Woman with a Hemorrhage, he allows her to touch him. This is remarkable.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived in a Hindu village where contact with blood from any woman was profoundly polluting. Devout Hindu women slept outside their homes when they were menstruating. They didn't dare look at their husbands at this inauspicious time, lest they risk their being reincarnated as something vile, like a cockroach.

Jesus didn't just heal the woman with a hemorrhage. He allowed her polluting, bloody body to touch his.

I tear up just thinking about it. Just thinking about it, I am reminded, again, why I am a Christian.

Jesus healed people who were alien, enemy, used up, Darwinian lost causes. Lepers. Blind beggars. Roman soldiers' beloved slaves!

Jesus made pretty clear that non-Jews, that enemies, that used up people, that lonely spinsters, all deserved to live.

I asked the atheist I write about in "Save Send Delete," how about atheism? Does it have an argument that conveys value to people who are, in the Darwinian sense, worthless?

You can read his answer to that in the book.

***

No conclusions here. I'll be repeating my affirmation: I deserve to live. I'll be asking Jesus' help in allowing it to sink in. I have a battle-weary warrior's respect for the battlefield I face.

Jesus was always healing folks that more rational observers would deem unworthy of life.
Jesus heals the Woman with a Hemorrhage. Source.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Affirmations, Psalms, & Structural Similarities: Does God Want Us to Pray This Way?

Photo by Jennifrog. Her page is here.
King David, Psalmist

Like a lot of cancer patients, I'm doing affirmations.

Yesterday I suddenly realized that many Biblical psalms are identical in structure and content to affirmations.

I wonder if the similarity between the Biblical psalms and affirmations offers any insight into the intentions, and the theological worldview, of the authors of the psalms. I wonder if this similarity is any indication of the theological correctness or efficacy of affirmations.

In short: Does God approve of affirmations? And does the affirmation-like structure of many psalms offer any answer to that question?

***

What are affirmations?

Affirmations are brief, declarative sentences. They are in the "present tense, positive, personal and specific" (source).

Affirmations are used by a variety of people facing various challenges. They can be used by sick people battling an illness, by survivors of traumatic events, or by athletes training for an event.

Below are some examples.

A cancer patient might make use of the following affirmations:

I trust in the power of love to heal my body.

I trust in the love given to me by my doctors (family, friends, etc.) to help my body heal itself.

My body is learning to relax in the presence of pain. (source)

Adults who were abused as children might help themselves recover from the lingering impact of that abuse by repeating the following affirmations:

I am a good person.

I am made in God's image.

I am intelligent.

Today I will put all negativity behind me.

I am loved. (source)

Athletes training for an event might use the following affirmations:

I am prepared.

I am going to win.

I feel better than ever.

I am confident.

I recover properly.

I am eating right. (source)

***

Why do people make use of affirmations?

For some, affirmations are believed to work on a purely physical level. If you tell yourself that you are beautiful, that message will make you feel good, and feeling good will improve your physical appearance. If an athlete tells himself that he works out regularly, that attitude will become second nature for him, and he is more likely to work out regularly and to benefit from his workouts.

For others, affirmations have a magical quality. Affirmations align you with a supernatural source of power and make things happen through a process that can't be observed or measured. This approach is typical of New Age thought.

Affirmations, for some Christians, is a form of prayer. This is typical of Unity Church and its publication, "Daily Word."

***

Again, affirmations are

Declarative sentences

In the present tense

That state a specific, positive, desired result

They are personal.

Affirmations are, in short, like many Biblical psalms!


Psalm 23, the most famous psalm, is one affirmation after another!

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 121, my personal favorite, is also a series of affirmations, although most are in the future tense, not the present tense:

My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

***

Not all psalms are affirmations. The most common psalm theme is lament. Others are songs of praise or thanksgiving.

***

We have records of Jesus's disciples only ever asking him how to do one thing – how to pray. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus doesn't exactly follow the model outlined above.

His opening statements are affirmation-style, declarative sentences: "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

In subsequent sentences, though, Jesus does not state a desire as a declarative sentence. Rather, his sentences are imperative requests: "Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses. Deliver us from evil." Jesus doesn't say, in affirmation or psalm style, "You give us our daily bread."

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Reading from "Save Send Delete" at Hawthorne, NJ's, Well Read Bookstore

I'll be reading at Hawthorne's Well Read Bookstore on September 14th. Please come!
Source
Well Read Bookstore interior. You get a comfy chair if you come for my reading on September 14th. 
Please come to hear me read from "Save Send Delete" on Friday, September 14th, at 6:30 pm, at the Well Read Bookstore, 425 Lafayette Avenue, Hawthorne NJ 07506

"Save Send Delete" is the true story of my debate, and love affair, with a celebrity atheist.

One day a few years back I sent an email to a celebrity atheist I saw on TV. To my great surprise, this man wrote back to me. Thus began our emailed debate, and love affair. "Save Send Delete" tells that story. It's gotten some great review on Amazon, and some impressive blurbs from authors like Larry Dossey, Robert Ellsberg and Paul Loeb. You can read those blurbs below.

Hope to see you on Friday, September 14th.

Here is what some readers have had to say about "Save Send Delete":

A quirky, intricately woven, multi-layered love story, a debate that couldn't be between greater opposites: a devout Catholic schoolteacher and a dogmatic atheist author.

Stuart Balcomb, composer, Gravity and Grace.

Danusha Goska is a lyrical, forceful writer with a huge heart and talent to burn. Her inspiring observations embody the best vision of which we humans are capable. Goska deserves widespread attention.

Larry Dossey, MD author, Reinventing Medicine and The Power of Premonitions

I was very affected by the love story. The last twenty pages really had me biting my nails. Your work reminds me of Etty Hillesum.

Robert Ellsberg author of All Saints and Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion.

Save Send Delete is beautifully written, and there is much in this work that intrigues, entrances, informs, & moves me. Danusha Goska writes with flair, vividness, and depth about two faith systems; two levels of consciousness; two geographical, sociological, historical, & psychological planes of existence – yet in each sentence, she searches for grandeur, wholeness & transcendence in both.

Charles Ades Fishman, poet, Chopin's Piano.

Danusha Goska is a terrific writer and thinker and reading Save Send Delete – whether you're an atheist or an agnostic or a true believer – will be a blessing to you.

John Guzlowski, poet, Lightning and Ashes.

It is a given, as consistently observed by others in print, that Danusha V. Goska is an exquisite writer. Her words paint the richest of images for the reader, while the images themselves become the suddenly clarifying metaphors for those parts of our humanity we may have forgotten. What is not so often stated is that one is hard pressed to read Ms. Goska's writing passively. Her essays and books oblige readers to assert their own positions on a wide variety of issues ~ note her work in "Bieganski," "Homosexuality and the Bible," or her latest work, Save Send Delete. Ms. Goska ultimately draws us into a dialogue about her and our faith – a theme that is the common thread throughout her writing. To this I can attest personally, as one who reads her works and is always energized by the debate.

Dr. Michael Herzbrun, Rabbi Temple Emanu-El, Rochester, NY

Zippy and vivid writing; Goska spins a fascinating tale.

Oriana Ivy, poet, My Grandmother's Laughter

Cheeky, mystical, merry, dark, and deep, Goska's wit, intelligence, and faith shimmer on every page.

Jim Leary author, So Ole Says to Lena

A powerful and evocative reflective journey.

Paul Loeb, author, Soul of a Citizen.

Goska writes with wit, exuberance, and grace about matters of the heart and the soul. Save Send Delete works on multiple levels –emotional, spiritual, and physical – to evoke in readers an awareness of life's splendid mysteries. It's a Christian Eat, Pray, Love (without the Eat), offering readers an entertaining, insightful story about two very different but equally unforgettable individuals.

Daiva Markelis, memoirist, White Field Black Sheep.

With spare but dramatic and searing description Goska takes the reader on a quest for the essence of life – and faith. Along the not-so-beaten path her followers discover heart. Save Send Delete is a story to Read Realize Retain.

James Conroyd Martin, author, Push Not the River and Against a Crimson Sky.

I honestly absolutely love Save Send Delete. I was reading it last night and I was laughing so hard, I nearly fell out of bed!!

– Krystyna Mew, publisher, Lost Between Worlds.

Save Send Delete tackles meaty and timeless topics in a fresh and highly entertaining form. It packs in age-old questions of love, God, suffering, transcendence and death with humor, grace and wisdom. It explores relationships: between men & women, between students & teachers, and ultimately between ourselves and who we want ourselves to be and mean. As a practicing Catholic, I found myself humbled by Mira's insights and experiences. As a computing professional, I reveled in the interaction of two minds reasoning about faith. I inhaled this book in hours, yet I feel it will have a profound and lasting impact on my life.

Barbara E. Moo, author of programming language textbooks and former executive at Bell Labs

Falling down the gap

When you arrive into the stations of the London Underground, a recorded voice intones 'Mind the gap. Mind the gap.' It is something Londoners take for granted.

We live in a world that, we are told, is getting smaller. We can travel around the globe in a matter of days, move between cultures in a matter of hours. What do we see when we arrive? We see the golden arches, the logos of familiar shops and all too often, the familiar sound of the English language. The world is getting smaller, we say. A comfortable mantra. A comfortable untruth.

We no longer see the gap.

Danusha Goska's book, Save Send Delete, tears that comfort away. She writes about a divided world, a world in which the unbelievably wealthy live in world that they barely see and are not aware of the immense privilege of their existence; and the unbelievably poor live in a world more harsh than we can imagine, but that also contains beauty and generosity.

Danusha Goska turns what could be an academic abstraction into the living world of real people who come vividly alive in her prose.

She not only sees the gap, she has gone into it, and in her writing offers to share that journey and the insights it has given her.

Danuta Reah, author, Listen to the Shadows.

I'll admit I was skeptical, but Goska is such a good writer she had me hooked on the first page.

Vivian Chern Shnaidman, author, Homicidal Intent

The writing is stunning, the intelligence razor sharp. A beautiful piece of writing and a story that will stay with me for quite a long time, I can already feel it.

Laura Young, photographer, author, All is Well: Drawing Wisdom from the Well of Grief and Joy.