Follow by Email

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Everything Wrong with New Age Thought

Christ in Majesty source
The World card from tarot.
Note the influence of Christ in Majesty on this card.
Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Rachel Pollack's tarot guide.
This book epitomizes everything that's wrong with New Age thought. 
Taking a break from talking about cancer and trying to sell my book – hey, go buy my book, Save Send Delete!

I just read an astoundingly crappy book, and I want to post my review of it here because this book is not random in its crappiness. Rather, this book epitomizes all that is wrong in New Age thought – thought that has penetrated public schools, even Christian churches, and far too many of our minds.

***

Rachel Pollack's tarot book "Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom" epitomizes the errors of New Age thought.

Writing clearly is thinking clearly. Clarity is non-existent in Pollack's book. Her constant fudging of consensus reality is typical of New Age thought.

If one wanted to use tarot for divination, it would be necessary to assign clear meanings to each card. Pollack doesn't provide that. She provides rambling stream of consciousness. An example: her "explanation" of the Chariot card. Here's a paraphrase: "The Chariot could be about death, because, after all, in India people associate horses with death and funerals. And John F. Kennedy was assassinated while traveling in a limo! So maybe this card is really all about the soul's triumph over mortality! The Chariot might signify destruction because Shiva destroys the world while conducting a chariot. The Chariot could signify lingams, or yonis. But you know Freud relates horses to the libido. So maybe this card is all about sex! But forget Freud. What would Jung say? Maybe the Chariot is about the Jungian persona. Or maybe not. Maybe it's all about human speech. Only humans possess language – although we have taught chimps to communicate!" (pages 64-9).

Pollack's attempt to assign numeric values to cards is equally risible. If she doesn't like the number a card has, she divides the number, multiplies it, adds to it or subtracts from it, or places it in the context of an alternative numbering system, for example that used in ancient Sumer, thus coming up with a new number (page 120). "This card takes any number I assign to it" becomes "It's true because I say it's true. It's true because it feels true to me," Pollack's narcissistic measure of truth. An image of salamanders with their tails in their mouths means one thing on one card (164) and a completely different thing on another card (169).

At every turn, Pollack tosses out random, undeveloped references to material conventionally assumed to be "deep" and "profound": allusions to Greek and Hindu mythology, Kabbalah, Shakespeare, and televised science specials starring Carl Sagan (really). Here's the thing – Pollack exhibits no engaged understanding of any of the systems to which she alludes – it was Alexander Oparin, not Carl Sagan, who developed the theory Pollack credits to Sagan. Pollack repeats urban legends, for example the widely believed but false notion that full moons increase criminal activity (126). "Michelangelo's famous painting shows a spark leaping from God's finger to Adam's" (161). No, it does not.

Pollack's misrepresentations, in several cases, are not random. Rather, they are part of the received dogma of New Age thought. These are:

1.) Christianity is an oppressive, totalitarian, violent, misogynist, destructive system.

2.) Before the evil Christians showed up, people around the world enjoyed peaceful goddess worship (46)

3.) All over the world, once a year, priestesses representing the goddess would kill and dismember the male leader of the tribe (50, 84-5).

4.) All religions have at their core the same truth: people must transcend ego and join with the one.

None of the above postulates are true. In spite of their falsity, Many New Agers uphold them as dogma.

The Goddess belief was thoroughly debunked by Cynthia Eller in her book "The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future."

James Frazer's "Golden Bough," the source of the dying and rising God belief, has also been debunked.

Pollack has a problem with masculinity and "patriarchal society." She provides negative interpretations for tarot cards depicting male characters, even cards usually perceived as positive. The Emperor card represents the best in essential masculinity. Pollack reads it as a negative card referencing "force, aggression and war" an old, stiff, rigid, lifeless, barren scene, society and its laws, people who have never realized that their father is just a human being, people who surrender control of their lives to their lovers. Compare this to her reading of the Queen of Cups, depicting an emotional and spiritual woman. Most interpretations acknowledge that this woman has her failings; she can be overcome by her heart. Pollack, though, reads this feminine card as almost all positive, while reading the male Knight of Cups and King of Cups as almost all negative.

Again and again, Pollack insists that the pinnacle of the Tarot is to become a hermaphrodite. This is not true – tarot is a powerfully and traditionally gendered system depicting nurturing, maternal females and active, horse-riding and sword-wielding males. But Pollack herself identifies as a transsexual. The message: I am transsexual; therefore, everyone else should aspire to be a hermaphrodite.

Forget the church; rather, read comic books for your spiritual guidance (26). Pollack is a comic book author. Schizophrenics are misunderstood by rigid, Christian society. Schizophrenics are really shamans (34-5). The Christian church crushed women (36). Pollack has never heard of, or doesn't want you to know about, 2,000 years of Christian women from Mary Magdalene to Junia to Hildegard to Teresa to Dorothy Day.

Pollack's hostility to, falsification of, and envious, power-hungry  insistence on supplanting Christianity with the High Church of Rachel Pollack renders her incompetent to explain tarot to anyone. Tarot cards are rife with Christian symbols. One example on a card Pollack mentions frequently: the World. This card represents the pinnacle of success and satisfaction. It depicts a central figure surrounded by a victory wreath and four animals: an angel, a lion, an ox, and an eagle.

The World card is based on a very common Christian motif: Christ in Majesty. The four animals in the corners of the image symbolize Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors of the four Gospels. You would think that a book that purports to explain tarot would mention the very close relationship between the World card and the Christ in Majesty motif. It doesn't suit Pollack's purposes to do so, so she does not mention it. Like a Soviet-era photographer, she merely airbrushes out of her revisionist history anything that does not suit her purpose.

Pollack tells us that all religions have as their goal each person transcending himself through his own effort, and uniting with an impersonal New Age super-soul. Differences between religions can be fudged in order to create the new Rachel Pollack church. Hinduism justifies suffering with the concept of reincarnation. You do a bad thing in your past life; you are reincarnated as an untouchable, and you are treated badly. That's okay, because you did bad things in your past life, and you deserve to suffer. This is just like the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit, Pollack insists, bizarrely (86). Paul meeting Christ on the road to Damascus is just like Buddha achieving enlightenment (119). No, these events and concepts from three different belief systems are not equivalent, and attempting to hijack and misrepresent them for Pollack's new church insults these traditions and misleads naïve readers.

Pollack says that the tarot's Death card rides a white horse because white symbolizes purity (103). One of the most well-recognized lines from the New Testament states, "Behold a pale horse…his name that sat on him was Death." Pollack appears to be unaware of some of the most famous scriptural lines and artistic motifs, cultural material that is essential to understanding how tarot cards come to appear the way they do.

Tarot has undeniable value: artists create their own decks; users dialogue with their inner selves; decks provide cultural data for anthropologist and ethnographers. There are fun, thought-provoking books out there that reflect on tarot. One of the best is Joan Bunning's "Learning the Tarot."


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Duct Tape and Cancer Scars

Duct Tape
Deena Metzger

If I were a true and deep artist and woman, I would look at my scar and write a poem or sculpt something uplifting.

As it is, I look at my scar and think, "Duct tape."

I am a spinster with no man of my own. I'm related to lots of men – brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews – who would, in accord with my family's tradition, not pee on me if I were on fire.

As a manless spinster I use a lot of duct tape. It really does fix everything, and anything duct tape can't fix is not worth salvaging.

So, yes. I look at this mess of a scar and think, not poem or essay, but, rather, "Duct tape."

***

Now, see, if I were a true artist and woman, I'd do something like the breathtaking poster, above, by Deena Metzger. One of the most stunning, bravest, and most generous images I have ever seen.

***

Went to the hospital today.

Waited in the waiting room.

Paged through copies of "Cancer Today."

A lovely woman came in with a dog so elegant this dog would put to shame Joan Crawford in an evening gown designed by Adrian.

"Would you like a visit?" the woman asked.

I reached out to the dog. It was a black Pomeranian. I've never seen a dog with such perfect fur: lush, thick, sleek, shiny. The Pomeranian's name was Neena and she was friendly. She was wearing a little vest that identified her as a service dog.

Her owner told me Neena's story:

"My boyfriend is a long-distance truck driver and he had Sophie, a black Pomeranian who traveled with him on the road. He had her for 18 years. After she died, he couldn't stand the idea of a new dog. 'No one can replace Sophie!'

'Well,' I said to him. 'No one can replace Sophie, but there are so many dogs out there who are lonely and uncared for. We can give a dog a home and some love.'

I worked on him for six months. Finally he said he'd let me get a dog, but it had to be a black Pomeranian just like Sophie. I went on petfinder.com. I found a black Pomeranian but he rejected that one. Didn't look enough like Sophie.

I found another. She was a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. They sent me a photo. She looked awful in the photo. I showed the photo to my boyfriend. In spite of how bad she looked, he said, 'Her!' So we flew to New Orleans and picked her up and here she is.

I'm going to take her to the tavern in Peapack." Did she really say that? Is there a tavern in Peapack that serves dinner to dogs?

But Neena had to go and I went back to waiting.

Thank God for Neena. Thank God for that nice lady.


I am afraid of medical settings and medical people. I've had some really bad medical experiences I won't detail here. You'd think that this would be on my chart: fears medical settings and medical people.

They called my name and I went into the room and undressed. Yet another person I'd never met before and would never see again who would touch my body in intimate ways entered the room. I shook a little; some tears fell. The woman, who had a deeply tanned face, loomed over me with a large pair of tweezers. She yelled. "YOU ARE TENSING UP. THAT WILL MAKE IT WORSE AND IT WILL HURT. *STOP IT.*"

She quickly glanced at my chart, discovered my name and spoke it. "Danusha! Relax! RELAX RELAX RELAX! You are going to make it hurt!"

Now, you might think that having a strange woman with a deeply tanned face looming over me, yelling in an overtly angry way, "RELAX" might tense me up.

But I'm from New Jersey, and this woman was very Jersey. It worked, for me.

I obeyed. I relaxed. I imagined walking off through the fields of bruise-blue rye in Slovakia, my Uncle Jan up ahead. We were walking toward the hills, toward the thickly forested hills, where Uncle Jan's beehives where. We'd tend to the bees and then hike around the mountain and hear cuckoos and the heavy panting of wild boar. He'd give me juniper berries to bite on for their clean taste. We'd fill a basket with mushrooms he unearthed, where I saw only moldering oak leaves on the forest floor, to bring home to Aunt Jolana to put in the soup we'd have for dinner.

"Your scar looks good," the woman who never told me her name or her title said. I knew more about Neena than I knew about this woman.

If my scar looks good, I don't want to see the scars that look bad.

I heard the staples hit a metal tray. She was careful to remove the staples from different parts of the scar so that no one part became irritated. It really didn't hurt. So often the case – people who are good at the technical aspects of medicine lack bedside manner. Those with the smooth bedside manner might not know the right end of a stethoscope.

I was about to venture my duct tape joke when she said, "I'm going to glue you up." And then, "Now I'm applying the tape."

So, yeah, tape. And glue. My latest accessories. But no spit or carpet tacks.

***

In other news. Check out my book, "Save Send Delete." The Amazon page, with some fabulous reviews, is here. Each time I sell a copy it extends my life – not really. It just feels that way. :-)

***
PS: Multiple blessings on Chris Jaworski for giving me a ride to the hospital today.

A black Pomeranian

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Good Are Sick People? Why Not Just Get Rid of Them? A Scientist's Answer

Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs
in the 1947 film noir, "Kiss of Death" 

What good are sick people? Why not just get rid of them? Remember ancient Sparta, where babies were inspected after birth and exposed to death if they were defective? Remember the Nazis. The first and last group the Nazis mass murdered was not Jews, or Communists, or homosexuals, or trade unionists. The first and last group of people the Nazis mass murdered was the physically handicapped.

Okay, so you're not a Nazi. But sick people give you the creeps. So you just avoid them.

After all, health and happiness are desired, not illness and suffering. Why not just avoid sick and sad people?

Xavier Le Pichon, a scientist, offers an intriguing answer. Based on his science, Le Pichon concludes that both individual human beings and human societies actually require contact with the sick and the suffering in order to be healthy and whole.

Plate tectonics. Xavier Le Pichon worked out this theory, and applies it to his argument  that illness and suffering are necessary to individuals and to communities. 
Xavier Le Pichon (born 1937) has an amazing resume. He has lived enough for several lifetimes.

He survived internment in a World War II Japanese concentration camp. He was imprisoned as a small child, and lived under death threats.

He got a PhD in physics. At age 29, he contributed to a revolution in his own field. When he started out, geophysicists believed that the earth was fixed. The continents were always where they are located now. Le Pichon developed a comprehensive model of plate tectonics. This showed that the earth is in motion, and the continents move.

At the top of his game, at age 36, having revolutionized his own scientific field, and having been honored for that, Le Pichon realized that there was something missing from his life. He dropped everything. He decided to quit science. He left his positions and his honors.

He went to Calcutta, to work with Mother Teresa. One day he tried to feed one small boy who was starving to death in front of his eyes. In that small boy, Le Pichon saw Jesus. The experience was so profound for Le Pichon he decided never "to turn away my eyes from somebody who is suffering."

***

Xavier Le Pichon insists that contact with sick people and suffering people are necessary for the health and wholeness of each individual human, and for the health and wholeness of human society. He harnesses his work on plate tectonics to make this argument.

Le Pichon, a geophysicist, studies the earth. He says that where the earth is softer and more pliable, changes occur without trauma. Where the earth is perfect and rigid, changes occur with violence and destruction.

He says that this model applies to human individuals, and to human societies. Perfect people and perfect societies become rigid. To change, they must break.

People and societies that have incorporated human frailty into their worldview and their functioning grow smoothly. They don't need to break to grow.

Le Pichon, a devout Catholic, incorporates his understanding of Jesus into his worldview and his functioning. When he fed that starving child in Calcutta, he saw Jesus.

But, Le Pichon says, human societies have long had the compassionate model as one of their options. He cites discoveries in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq. This cave contained remains of Neanderthals. These remains were tens of thousands of years old. Among the remains was a man who had several physical handicaps. Shanidar 1, or Nandy, was an old man (by Neanderthal standards) who was severely deformed. He had many injuries that had healed over time. Nandy, researchers argue, showed that this ancient proto-human community made sacrifices in its own lifestyle in order to allow this old man who continue to live among them.

Le Pichon argues that the compassion this community showed to Nandy wasn't just good for Nandy, it was good for the community.

"When in a family or community you really are taking care with love of somebody who is sick or in the last stage of his life. Suddenly, we take turns around this person, and you create an extremely specific kind of man community…They have reorganized themselves around the small ones, the babies, because otherwise there is no life possible…But also the people who are in great difficulty because of suffering, because of sickness, because of handicap, because life is coming to the end. And that's really very new and special. You know, it becomes a society which we call human."

Some choose to wall themselves off from the sick and the suffering. Le Pichon argues that these people miss out on the essence of human experience and spiritual life.

"I've known some people that I've considered very generous, very open, and so on, and I've seen them progressively close themselves, begin to shut the doors, begin to be afraid of being invaded by this problem from the outside. And it's as if their heart, you know, were shriveling.

With others, you have the impression that they are always more and more open. I met Mother Teresa and of course Jean Vanier, Father Thomas Philippe, and so on, who are people who have this extraordinary capacity to enter into a relationship with people always open and in a relationship in which they immediately join the part which is most hidden and hurt in them. They have this capacity to enter into this new life, and it seems to deepen and deepen with time. It's as if you had two different ways.

You have this kind of big awakenings when the big catastrophe happens, either a collective one like a war or major accident, but it can be also a tragedy inside the family, not just outside. And they may react in a way that you cannot predict. Sometimes it's very bad. Sometimes it opens them up. So it's something difficult but my experience is that once you enter into this way of, I would call it companionship, you know, walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. You know, they teach you a new way of being.

We have to be educated by the other. Our heart cannot be educated by itself. I mean, my heart cannot be educated by myself.

It can only come out of a relationship with others. And if we accept to be educated by the others, to let the other explain to us what happens to them, how they feel, which is completely different from what we feel, and to let yourself immerse into their world so that they can get into our world, then you begin to share something which is very deep.

"You can change the world, but it's up to you. God is a mystery, but it can be discovered only through the weak, the fragile, the part of us and around us. And then we discover that this has a power of transformation of the world. Not through very strong armies or rockets or whatever that is."

Le Pichon also draws on his own memory of suffering:

"I remember when I was in the concentration camp. I was eight at the time. And life was hard. All the babies were dying of hunger and we were together. We were the center of life. We were continuously present with our parents, uncles, and so on, and that is not a bad memory for me."

***

Quotes from Xavier Le Pichon come from this transcript.

Xavier Le Pichon's essay "Ecce Homo" is here.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suffering Proves the Soul. How Do You Measure Up?

Soldier in a foxhole. Source.

You have friends who are so scrupulously politically correct that their shit glows with a white magnesium flame and it smells of bleach. These friends were the very first to support Obama. They drive a Prius and their TV sets are programmed to disable transmissions from FOX news.

But if push came to shove, would these Politically Correct, publicly virtuous bleeding hearts be there for you? If you needed a loan, a ride, someone to hold your hand, would these PC superheroes show up and do the necessary or would they turn tail and run for the hills?

How do you know?

***

Talk to an old soldier, a combat veteran. They all say the same thing: "You never know who you can trust in a foxhole."

These old soldiers will tell you: some men swagger, use judo moves to pick up cafeteria trays, clean their teeth with deer-skinning knives. You'd think that these Chuck Norris wanna-bes would be the ones you could rely on in a foxhole. Once the enemy fire started, these macho warriors would not be the ones to forget the most fundamental basics of military training, like how to pull the pin on a grenade. They would not break down and cry for mommy.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Other guys you don't even notice. They are as slim as shadows and as quiet as summer leaves. Their back pockets bulge with paperback books. They exhibit zero enthusiasm for the paraphernalia of war. If they talk at all, it's about what they'll do once it's all over and they can return to civilian life. You'd never want to be stuck in a foxhole with these wimps.

Maybe. Maybe not.

***

Yes, the foxhole is a big fat metaphor.

Life will throw you a curve. One day you are dancing, falling in love, enjoying the sunshine. The next day you get a cancer diagnosis, you are in a car wreck, you lose your job or you're accused of a crime.

The people who surrounded you the day you were dancing and laughing will be different from the people who surround you the day after your bad news.

Think you can predict, now, while things are good, who would stick by you after the shelling starts?

Maybe. Maybe not.

***

My provisional list of Foxhole Rules:

1.) You are going to be in a lot of foxholes: illness, financial setbacks, emotional crises, disappointments, days when, no matter how hard you look, you can't find the remote.

2.) You never know who you can depend on in a foxhole until you are in a foxhole.

3.) People you thought were your best friend forever will let you down. Rather than take names, you best learn, forgive, and move on. Remember the foxholes where you peed your own pants rather than be a hero; remember the times you let someone else down – and forgive yourself, learn and move on.

4.) Exactly because you don't know in advance whom you can rely on in a foxhole, you can't know who, of the people you see right now, is a hero. You are surrounded by foxhole heroes you do not recognize. The person who literally saved someone else's life, the person who donated a kidney, the person who stayed up all night with a broken-hearted stranger met in a bus depot, the person who loaned an unemployed parent a thousand bucks – you are surrounded by these people, and you do not recognize them.

***

Why does God allow suffering? I offered my best answer to that question in "Save Send Delete." I was promoting this just-published book this summer when I received a cancer diagnosis. I am now learning even more about suffering.

Suffering doesn't affect only the person who is suffering. Suffering affects others around that person.

I've watched a lot of people wrestle with cancer. I know how cancer reduces victims to helplessness.

I'm alone. No family. Few friends. No car. Little money. I live low-rent in a broken city, where I can't even rely on mail delivery, police protection from gang violence or garbage pick-up, never mind humanitarian social services.

How would I get through even the initial battery of tests – MRI, cat scan, x-rays, sonogram? The hospital I need to go to is inaccessible via public transport. Never mind days when I would not be able to walk from bed to bath.

I'm in a foxhole.

My suffering suddenly becomes a test for everyone I know. Will you offer a ride, bring groceries, say something compassionate?

Maybe this is part of why God allows suffering: not just so that the person who is suffering can grow, but so that those around the person who is suffering are offered a chance for growth.

Which one of these folks could I rely on:

The devout, church-going Catholics, who swear fealty, out loud, every Sunday, to service and compassion?

The academic hipsters, who announce at every wine-and-cheese how much more enlightened they are than the unworthy masses?

The artists, who insist that their unconventional life-path devoted to beauty, not filthy money, elevates their souls?

The suburbanites who work hard and play by the rules?

The leftwing Democrats who are certain that they have the formula to save the world?

The rightwing Republicans who are certain that they have the formula to save the world?

Want to guess?

***

Some people really did turn and run. Who?

People who had previously insisted that they loved me and that we were friends forever and ever. People I had known for years. People whose house I had slept at. People with whom I had celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays. People whose hands I held when they faced life crises. People who publicly, loudly and repeatedly proclaim how much more righteous and compassionate they are than other people, who are shocked, shocked by other people's callous insensitivity and selfishness and hypocrisy.

I said, "I just found out I have cancer" and they disappeared as if they were cartoon characters and could erase themselves from my life and I from theirs, leaving no trace.

Do you think I'm inviting you to judge and condemn these disappeared ones?

I'm not.

Remember the foxhole rules: life is going to throw you a lot of foxholes, learn, forgive, remember.

Every one of the people who disappeared after I got cancer was someone who had been supportive of me in some other foxhole.

One of the people who disappeared – let's call her M. M is a very artistic, creative person.

This may sound silly to you. It's not silly to me.

I tell this story in "Save Send Delete."

One night I was very sad because I had watched a movie that ended badly. Ridiculous, I know.

I phoned M and she, using her artistic skills, rewove the entire movie for me. As bewitching as Scheherazade, she used her voice and her breath, in that phone call, to soothe me, but also to enchant me.

I love and value her powers of enchantment.

I'm sorry she can't be my friend now.

I forgive because I've let people down, too.

And I'm moving on. No looking back.

***

So here's my answer to the question I asked above. Of the groups of people I named, the right-wingers, the left-wingers, the Christians, the atheists, the this, the that.

Who let me down after I found out I had cancer? Who offered real support?

Some leftwing people have been helpful. Some have disappeared.

Some rightwing people have been helpful. Some have disappeared.

Some Christians have been helpful. Some have disappeared.

Some Atheists have been helpful. Some have disappeared.

Some people who stand up in public and beat their chests about righteousness and circulate petitions – some are helpful. Some disappear.

Some … but you get the idea.

Words and ideology do not matter. In a foxhole, actions matter. A person's substance matters. Only suffering proves that substance.

Like the old soldiers say, you can't predict whom you can rely on in a foxhole.

***

With one exception.

This is hard for me to say. I'm saying it because it's true, and it's worth thinking about.

With this new foxhole, as with every other foxhole, Catholic priests have let me down. They've been dismissive, passive, self-protective, trivializing, dense, arrogant, lacking in compassion, utterly clueless about how the real world works, or inaccessible.

I hope at some point we Catholics will take a look at our priesthood and consider changes we might make that might invite a different kind of person to become a Catholic priest.

***

I've talked here about how helpful Robin Schaffer has been to "Save Send Delete."

Perhaps people conclude that as kids, Robin and I slept over each other's houses, and read romance novels together by flashlight under the sheets, and ate raw cookie dough together, brushed each other's hair, applied polish to each other's toenails.

Not so.

Robin and I met as adults. We were working on the same campus. We spent very little time together, but we did like each other and we hung out.

I left to go to grad school. Robin and I fell out of touch. I moved back to New Jersey several years ago, googled Robin, and we got back in touch again.

We're very different people.

Example: I think the 1950, black-and-white, Bette Davis film "All About Eve" is one of the top ten films ever made. I recommended it to Robin. She didn't care for it.

!!!!!!!!!!!!

Another example: Obama. Our feelings about Obama are the opposite of each other's.

So. There you have it. Robin and I are very different people, and though we are friends, we don't have a long, deep history.

This is not the person you would predict to be my best ally in a foxhole.

Bette Davis (r.) as Margo Channing in the 1950 film "All about Eve." Robin and I disagree about her.


We disagree about this guy, as well. 
Robin did three things that stand out:

1.) Robin sat with me.

I am an adjunct professor. I make money, but just enough to live hand-to-mouth. I teach – vital work – but adjunct professors are not valued enough by society to have health insurance. In a year when I made $6,000 as an adjunct professor, St. Joseph's hospital turned me down for charity care. Not poor enough. "We have people coming in with no income or assets whatsoever!" Of course that's not true, and everyone knows it. The people getting charity care at St. Joe's are wise enough to work under the table. Adjunct professors don't have that luxury, so St. Joe's turns us away. And St. Joe's is a Catholic institution.

Getting a cancer diagnosis and devoting a week after that diagnosis to trying to find a doctor to treat me was a slice of hell.

I did not visit that hell alone.

Robin was with me.

2.) Robin drove me.

I found a hospital to treat me, one not accessible via public transportation. Robin drove me there and back more times than I care to count.

3.) Robin took me in.

Nurses warned: after surgery, you cannot go home alone. I needed a bedroom and a bathroom and a pair of hands ready, in reserve, if I could not navigate the path between. Robin provided. She worked from home and stayed nearby so I would not be alone.

***

Pretty simple, no? As it happens, I did not require Robin to wipe my ass, or to drain my catheter, or to do any of that other icky stuff. I didn't break down and cry, didn't make demands, didn't make noise. I was determined to be an inconspicuous house guest, and I think I was. All until the last day when I yelled at Robin for vacuuming a floor I had previously swept, but, hey.

I sometimes wish I could say this to the people who are afraid to give, afraid to get involved: "It's much easier than you think, and it actually feels good."

Me? I want to save the world from environmental doom. I cannot do so. I do what I can do. I write checks to nature organizations: The Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy. For me, these checks are a lot of money, and I have to sacrifice some things to write these checks. Guess what? That little moment of sacrifice to do a good thing feels better than spending that money on presents for myself.

People are afraid to give because they are afraid that giving will be too much – someone will ask them for a kidney, a home loan.

Maybe not. Maybe you'll just have to sit next to someone who's gotten some really bad news, or give that person a ride, or let that person sleep under your roof for a week. And maybe doing that will feel better than spending that week in glorious isolation.

***

Otto Gross visited and transported and shopped and sent caring emails at key moments. Antoinette brought medication. Chris drove. Stephen sent a lovely email the morning of surgery: "Waiting to," he wrote "read the next great novel from one of my favorite authors. Speedy recovery!" A group of friends did something really kind I can't describe here – but stay tuned. If the storm passes, there will be a blog post about their kindness someday, too. Claire lit a candle and sent me a photo of the candle. A blessed group of people prayed. The Polish town of Markowa will offer a mass.

Not their own suffering, but someone else's, has taught these people, for a fact, this about themselves: I am someone who can be relied on in a foxhole. And it feels good to be that person.

***

I actually did save somebody's life once. Her name was Andrea Link and it was while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. Funny – I wanted to save Third World children. I ended up saving an American woman.

At other times, I have not been someone you could rely on in a foxhole. I learned, thereby, to show compassion to others who drop the ball. I forgive myself and others. I move on.

***

In my next blog post I will relate the question of suffering, and foxholes, and the folks who have been kind to me, to the essay "Ecce Homo" by Xavier Le Pichon, the groundbreaking scientist and devout Catholic.
Who shares your foxhole? Can you rely on him? How do you know? 

Friday, August 10, 2012

I heard a bird sing

Bob Mullen, Nature Photography

I Heard a Bird Sing
by
Oliver Herford

I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

"We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How I Spent My Last Day on Earth Before Being Chopped Up Into Iddy Biddy Pieces

Don Quixote by G. A. Harker
The Department of Motor Vehicles, aka HELL.

A friend invited me to go swimming yesterday. I love swimming and this might be my last chance.

While I was swimming I gave her my wallet for safekeeping. When I got out, the wallet was gone.

Tomorrow: showtime.

I will be under the knife.

I really need the driver's license that was in my stolen wallet. The hospital will use the driver's license as my identification. No driver's license, no surgery.

Today is my last day in the body I was born in.

I wondered how I'd spend today.

Listening to sitar music, in lotus position, contemplating the big truths? Rereading old diary entries and reviewing my life? Contacting loved ones and sending them spontaneous poetry praising our connections? Watching "Hitler finds out" videos on youtube, that always make me laugh? Or in uncut hedonism: dancing boys, booze, slots, chocolate?

In fact I spent the day, from eight a.m. to three p.m., non-stop, running around the ninety-degree streets of Paterson, NJ, and Haledon, and Wayne, on an empty stomach – not allowed to eat before surgery – doing what I could to replace the contents of that stolen wallet.

I started at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

(Non-American Readers: the Department of Motor Vehicles is the bureaucracy that issues drivers licenses. It is also hell.)

I carefully studied the list of requirements for the replacement of a stolen driver's license. With the theft of my wallet yesterday, I have very few of the required documents left, but just enough: my old license, a passport, a bank statement, and a few other items.

Here's the thing, though. Government bureaucracies lie, and don't function properly. They are a monopoly, and when the DMV doesn't live up to its promises, you can't go across the street to its competitor. It has no competitor. That, in a nutshell, is why I don't support Obamacare.

I arrived at the Paterson, NJ, DMV at eight a.m. I showed the clerk my documents. She refused to accept them.

"These documents meet DMV requirements," I said.

"I don't care," the woman said, baring her teeth at me. She really did. She bared her teeth.

"You're getting angry. You just bared your teeth. May I please speak to your supervisor?"

Maritza, the supervisor, arrived. She, too, would not accept the documents. She said she wouldn't accept the bank statement because it was not in its original envelope.

I pointed out that the printed DMV requirements mention no envelope.

She told me to leave.

I walked to the office of Congressman Bill Pascrell.

I was searched and put through a metal detector.

I walked into Congressman Pascrell's office and was met by a plump-cheeked, thick-haired, hyper healthy looking white boy wearing a blinding white shirt and a tie as conservative as Pope Benedict.

Without changing a hair of his physical appearance, this young intern could easily play the part of Rolfe, the young Nazi, in a "Sound of Music" revival.

My words rushed out: "Achtung, Rolfe. I've just been diagnosed with cancer. My wallet was stolen yesterday. Everything was in there: credit card, driver's license, money. I need the driver's license to be ID'd at the hospital tomorrow. I have all the required documents as listed in the DMV official pamphlet, but they won't issue a license to me. They are using bogus complaints like that my bank statement is not in the original envelope. Please help me."

And Rolfe told me to leave.

Rolfe is one of those people born handsome and healthy and hale, who, when he opens his mouth to speak, without any of his features changing one micrometer, becomes unbearably ugly. "We can't help you. That is a federal issue. This is a state office. Go to Benjie Wimberly's office."

I collapsed. I turned to go. Somehow, I found some gumption. I turned around again, and became very heavy, too heavy for Rolfe to move.

"Here's the thing, Rolfe. People in this office know me. I've been here many times before. You know I really am Danusha Goska, not one of the many imitators. Wimberly's people don't know me from Adam. Help me, Rolfe. Or at least let me speak to someone."

Rolfe said I could sit and wait for Nancy Everett. I did.

Nancy came out. A lovely African American woman. She took me to a conference room. Photos of Bill Pascrell with lotsa famous people.

I splayed my identifications out on the conference table. I told Nancy the whole story. And then I put my head down on the conference table, shook, and sobbed.

Nancy said something interesting, "The facts are not important here. What matters is that you have the required ID."

She picked my IDs up off the table and left the room. I heard a fax machine. She re-entered.

"I'll call you," she promised.

I believed her.

I went back outside into the heat and ran around Paterson some more.

Paterson is poor. Many of us don't have cars. We live on the streets. The streets throng. An African American woman in flip flops and her daughter carrying home, to the projects across the Passaic River, a large pizza pie. Muslims in Pashmina shawls. Very, very thin, old people. I wonder who these thin, thin, old people are. Dying? Heroin? Life? I always smile at them. You must smile at people so thin, and so old, forced to conduct their business on, to escort their bird bones over, Paterson's teeming streets.

Went to the library. Saw the very gorgeous, very sweet, bald, African American guy who mans the front desk. "Miss Danusha," he greeted me. He always calls me "Miss Danusha." "How have you been?"

I was just there to replace my library card, but his face is so spiritual, so deep and so kind, I had to blurt it all out. "If I get better…" I started to say.

"You will get better," he insisted. "You will."

Ran through the fetid air and over the bloodied sidewalks of the "live kill" markets stocked with living chickens and pigs and fish, waiting their turn to audition for someone's dinner table. Heard the phone ring. Answered. It was Nancy Everett. She was as good as her word.

"Go back to DMV," she said. "Go back to Maritza. They will give you your license."

"Thank you!" I shouted into the phone, louder than a nearby chicken being strangled. "Thank you," said, emphatic, in all caps.

I went back to the DMV. I expected them to shoot me death ray looks. Instead, they greeted me practically with cheers.

"She's back," someone said. "Get Maritza." Maritza came forward. She was actually smiling. "Thank you," she said. "Because of you, because of what you did, from now on we will go by the pamphlet. Trenton called us. Our policy is now changed."

Wow. Wow. 

One of the new photo IDs taken today.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Top Ten Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Just Gotten a Cancer Diagnosis. And Some Things to Say That Help.

Did you really just say that? 

I got some bad news the other day.

I then received more news, and it was even worse. Way worse.

And then the really bad news came in.

And then the floor fell out beneath me and I was holding on to the windowsills by my fingernails.

Robin stood by me.

A few days in, we were sitting in yet another hospital waiting room. She studied my face. "You're not eating," she observed. "You need to eat. Eat something. I want to see you eat. What do you want? We'll get it."

A few days later I realized I could no longer do my daily regimen of sit-ups on a bare, wooden floor. I needed a pad under me.

I'm a big-boned gal. I love my food. I went a couple of weeks without eating.

At one point, a hospital bureaucrat with the personality of liquid bleach being shot from a fire hose demanded my social security number. She demanded this in a thick New Jersey accent.

Every American my age knows her social security number by heart.

I stared at the woman.

She made that clicking sound with the tip of her tongue on the roof of her mouth and moved on to other questions, but kept coming back to the SSN. For a good fifteen minutes, I could not give her my social security number. She rolled her eyes at her co-workers staffing nearby cubicles, "Get a load of THIS one. They just WANT to ruin our day!"

I finally remembered I had a form – I had many forms – in my backpack. I pulled it out. My social security number was on the form. I gave it to her.

I will never be the same. After this news, I will never be the same.

***

I'm a verbal person. As it happens, even this new me is verbal. I need to talk about this. I study how others are talking about this. Even cancer, it seems, will be, for me, largely, a verbal experience.

I keep thinking about things that people have said to me that have really boggled my mind. Because I'm a verbal person, I want to blog about these statements.

You need to understand – I'm not trashing the people who said these things to me. They are all in my life for a reason, and I love them all.

Life is complicated. One of the people who said one of the worst things also said one of the best things.

***

Anyway. Cancer.

The boogeyman in the closet. I've been hiding all my life.

I'm from one of those families.

My Aunt Tetka died at 101. She was old when I was born, and she was old when I got my first gray hairs. She never exercised, ate, in my presence, only pastries served on doilies and sprinkled with powdered sugar, and never learned to speak English, the language of the country she moved to decades before I was born. My great grandfather, Gregor Cerno, ate smoked bacon fat and raw hot peppers, drank copious amounts of slivovice, and lived to be ninety-something, depending on whom you asked.

My grandmother, on the other hand, Mary Cernova Kerekova, who was an unforgettable presence in my childhood, died before I was born. I write about her in the essay "Silence." Grandma had cancer. Like my brother. My uncle. My aunt. My mother. My father. My sister. Me.

Grandma. Second from right. 
This is not my first time to the rodeo.

Mike Manning was tall and straight and brilliant. You should have heard of him by now – his unique contributions to math or science or journalism or politics.

Mike and I played together.

I vividly remember, being, what, 14 years old? Standing in St. Francis church during Mike Manning's funeral, asking myself, over and over, over and over, how can it be that Mike Manning is dead, and I am alive? He was so much cooler than I. Taller, stronger, smarter. Hodgkin's Lymphoma: The only fact in his beautiful young life that mattered, in the end.

After my brother Phil was killed in a car accident on my birthday, I really had this sense of "Phew. None of my other siblings will die for decades more."

My brother Mike Goska was studying to be a minister. Married, a son, a daughter on the way.

He knew, I think, and put off going to the hospital until the last minute.

I was a Peace Corp Volunteer in Nepal. This is how I got the news. I was teaching in a tiny settlement five days' walk from the nearest road. No running water, no electricity, no radio, no telegraph, no nuthin.

One night, I had a dream. A helicopter landed behind my house. Doctor Theresa, the Peace Corps doctor, my mother, and my sister got out of the helicopter. They walked up to me and said, "You have to come home. Someone is sick in the family."

The next morning I got out of bed, got my passport out of hiding, and told my headmaster that I would be leaving. He thought I was crazy. It was monsoon, I was at 7,000 feet, the trails were washing out and lush with terrestrial leeches. "I have to go," I said. When I finally got to Kathmandu and they showed me the telegram from the states, they wondered why I was not surprised.

Again, my brother Mike was studying to be a minister. He was surrounded by people who prayed. We all prayed. We prayed for a miracle. Mike was so young. His daughter, who would be named Lydia, was not yet born. His son Donald was just a toddler.

I don't know what happened to our prayers for my brother Mike.

***

My friend David Horne was an Eagle Scout, a devout Christian, and a gay activist. That is how we met. I was an active supporter of gay rights. I write about David in "Save Send Delete," pages 224-225.

One afternoon David and I watched "Bent" together in his home, which was actually a refurbished log cabin. Then we went downtown for falafels. He said he hadn't been feeling well lately. Like an idiot, I lectured him about his atrocious, Midwestern eating habits. It wasn't his eating habits. It was leukemia. He phoned me one day after he'd gone blind. I wanted to pull him back from the abyss, but I could not.

Later that same year I held my mother in my arms as she breathed her last breaths.

And then Rabbi Laurie Skopitz … I write about Laurie here.

The Jews have a song, "Dayenu." Enough. When it is enough, God?

***

And I've been waylaid by some monsters myself.

No, not cancer.

Worse.

Ha! How's that for one-up-man-ship?

It's a long story. After a very ugly event on the campus of Indiana University, I was stricken with an inner ear disorder.

Inner ear disorders are "orphan disorders" with little research, little funding, little attention, and no publicity. Symptoms vary. One woman I "met" online walk up one morning stone deaf. But, unlike me, she never vomited.

For me: for years I vomited uncontrollably. I was intermittently, completely, paralyzed. Not only could I not move, I could not think about moving. Thoughts of movement brought on more vomiting. I vomited so much I needed intravenous hydration. Nystagmus, an involuntary eye spasm, rendered me close to blind. I couldn't read, couldn't recognize my own face in a mirror.

I had "good days" when I could walk around outside, read, and eat. I couldn't predict when those good days would occur. Because I did have those good days, I was denied SSDI.

I lost weight. Unable, on my best days, to move quickly or place my head below my heart, I lost muscle tone. I lost all my friends. I lost my life savings. I lost any hope for any kind of a future.

I traveled from doctor to doctor, in three states. Surgeons operated three times; the first two were experimental; the last pro bono surgery by Richard T. Miyamoto at Riley Children's Hospital "killed" my ear.

I knew that surgery worked when I went the next week without vomiting.

There was no welcoming committee to ease me back into normal life after that surgery. I moved into an empty apartment and had to beg friends and charitable agencies for a spaghetti strainer, a chair. I lived in that apartment for a year without a telephone, a computer, a television, heat or hot water. It was Bloomington's worst winter. There was ice inside my windows. That's re-entry after a catastrophic illness when you have only yourself to rely on.

I am still deaf in the affected ear. I still use a cane to walk, for balance. Otherwise, I'm fine. I got my body back. I lift weights and do sit-ups and walk miles every day and enjoy it, knowing how hideous it is to be inside of a body and to be unable to move.

In other words, no, I don't need this cancer diagnosis to teach me what a miracle a healthy human body is, or what it is to be poor, or to be a medical guinea pig.

What is God thinking?

When will I have been educated … or punished … or disciplined … or life experienced … enough?

***

So, as I said, I need to talk about this, and I've tried, and I've hit some snags in my attempt to communicate, and I wanted to blog about that. So, here they are. The top ten things not to say to someone who has just gotten a cancer diagnosis:

1.) "The problem: you are Catholic."

I've been Catholic all my life. I'm used to anti-Catholicism. Blaming the Vatican for cancer is a new one on me, though.

2.) "Your religion stinks."

I can't talk about my diagnosis without talking about my faith. And even so much as mentioning my faith is an invite to some to point out that Jesus was a phony charlatan who just wanted sex with his followers, like Mary Magdalene, and I am a self-righteous idiot and hypocrite for believing in him in lieu of any other "desert nomad."

Yes, yes, the people who jumped at the chance to say this to me shortly after learning of my diagnosis are my friends, they do care about me and they are good people. I could theorize for hours about why people say things like this at moments like this, but I don't want this blog post to become a thousand pages long.

3.) "My religion is better than yours, and IF YOU DON'T WANT TO DIE OF CANCER, use this opportunity to start practicing my religion now!"

Interestingly enough, this email did not come from my Jehovah's Witness friend. She has been discrete and has not used cancer to try to get me to become a JW. Although she uses every other opportunity.

No, this message came from a friend who has converted to an Eastern religion. One that is better than mine. One that if I practiced it, I wouldn't be in this fix! Om and namaste and lotus blossoms and all that.

4.) "I'm an old-timer. I know the system like the back of my hand. Just do what I say, kid, and everything will be hunky dory."

I've been poor all my life. I'm the very worst kind of poor to be in America – an educated, articulate, American-born, white, working woman with no addictions, no arrest records, no child, and who works on the books. The conjurers of salvific government programs hate us. Again, topic for a whole book.

In other words, *I* know the system. I know what it is to fight for charity care in a hospital and be told that it isn't for "people like you. It's for people who are really poor."

There is a subset of know-it-alls out there who are convinced that they have the system figured out, and whenever I broach the topic of what it's like to be told, oh, say, that I have an illness that might kill me and that I can't get health care for that, these self-identified experts jump up eagerly and insist that they know. They know the form. They know the bureaucrat. They know the agency. They know the process. They don't, of course, but they do know how to stop any productive discourse dead in its tracks.

5.) "I KNOW someone who had EXACTLY what YOU HAVE and she just DIED a long, slow, horrible, lingering death!"

The person who said this to me had no clue what my diagnosis was.

6.) "I KNOW someone who had EXACTLY what YOU HAVE and it was a snap! It's a really easy one to cure! It's NOTHING!"

The person who said this to me had no clue what my diagnosis was.

7.) "Tell me EXACTLY what they are going to REMOVE and what procedure they will be using and how long the surgery will take and whether it will be chemo or radiation and what PERCENTAGE CHANCE they give you!"

Watch an episode of the old TV show E.R. But don't ask me questions like this. This is medical porn.

8.) "You are not alone. No man is an island."

Two problems: I am. I have two friends who are being very good, but they are friends, and their first priorities are their own families. They owe me nothing. I know what it is to do something like this alone, and it's not pretty. And these statements are clichés.

9.) Disaster movie emails.

How to describe these – they are their own genre.

One of my friends, a man I do love, and have much reason to be grateful to, all of a sudden, after I broke the news to him, started telling me about all these disasters in his life, including his sister's health problems. Funny thing – I've known him for seventeen years. I didn't even know he had a sister. He's never talked about her before.

A woman I barely know sent me a three thousand word email – that's a very long email – detailing every bad thing that had ever happened to her in her life. House fires. Runaway pets. Eczema. Psoriasis. A date who didn't show up for the prom. (I love this woman. Good woman. Weird email.)

I got quite a few of these communications. This was at a time when I was still staring into space, unable to eat, unable to remember my own social security number. People were drowning me in their own disaster news, news they felt no pressing need to write me about the very week before I got the diagnosis.

10.) Unsolicited advice.

No need to explain this one.

11.) Quack websites. New Age beliefs. Conspiracy Theories. Cures advertised on late night programs about alien abductions. What have you got to lose?

***

I've heard some good things. Here they are:

1.) Robin said, "Helping you is helpful to me."

That was the single best thing anyone said to me in this. Robin knows I am a save-the-world type, at least in my fantasies, and it is killing me to be so needy. She used my own psychological make-up to get me to accept much needed help from her. God bless her.

2.) "I'm here for the duration."

I reminded my friend Otto that death from cancer, should it come to that, is not pretty. He insisted he'd stick around through the baldness and decay I know all too well to be prominent menu items.

3.) "I'm praying for you."

More grateful than I can say to facebook friends who are praying for me. I got through one especially dreaded test by picturing their faces, saying their names, blessing them, and thanking God for them. Just that meditation process got me through a test I never thought I'd be able to complete.

I am very grateful to the citizens of Markowa who will be offering up a mass for me in September. I spoke in Markowa, Poland, last summer.

I "met" a lovely woman online. Her name is Claire Bateman and she is a poet. She told me she'd pray for me, as did others, and that means a great deal to me. Claire sent me a photo of a candle she'd lit for me. I cherished that photo and clung to that image to get through that day's tests.

Photo by Claire Bateman

4.) "You have affected my life."

This came from a complete stranger, a man who found and read "Save Send Delete." He sent me one of the most beautiful emails I've ever read. It was genuinely artistic photo of his sons, and a note on how reading "Save Send Delete" had had a positive impact on him, and, by extension, on his family. That is the kind of validation that makes one strong in the face of death. He encouraged me to live, though, so I could write more. That is the kind of prod that makes you want to march forward, in spite of it all.

5.) "I will clean your house and bring you food."

Thank you to my fellow adjunct professor, Janice, who sent me this email even before she knew the complete diagnosis. She just intuited from a note that I dropped her that someone big was up, and she knew exactly what I feared and what I needed, and she jumped in. God bless her. She's a devout Catholic, by the way.

6.) "I will research for you and share what I discover." Several people did this. I remember, now, Michele, Christina, Eva, Robin, of course.

7.) "Would you like me to take you to Skylands?"

Skylands is my favorite place on earth. I don't have a car so I don't get there often. Chris, Antoinette, Otto, Robin, all offered to take me. I'd stay alive for that.

8.) "I know you just got some very bad news. I don't know how you are feeling. I don't know the best thing to say. I want to be supportive. I know it will probably be hard for you to ask for anything. Please know that I am here. I am standing by. I care. I have a car … a house … some free time next Tuesday … a brother who knows somebody who works in that hospital … No rush. Whenever you are ready, please know I am standing by. If you just want to sit next to me for a while and just breathe, we can do that. And when you are ready to ask for something, even if it's a bit odd, run it past me. If I can do it, I will."

9.) "I'll be okay."

It bothers me tremendously to think that what's happening to me might hurt the people I care about. I need to hear that – that they'll be okay, no matter what happens to me.

10.) Laughter.

I'm glad people still laugh at my demented sense of humor.

11.) "Someday your writing, including Save Send Delete, will be discovered."
Hey, one can dream.