Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Ilana on a swing at a baby shower last weekend.

UPDATE JUNE 25: it turns out she simply has basal cell and not melanoma. We are very relieved. Still, grateful for support and it's been a hard week! 

There's really no easy way to write about this. I have thought about it, cried about it.

Last week, Ilana got diagnosed with melanoma. As she said in her Facebook note about it, it wasn't as much a question of "if" she got skin cancer, but more "when" - her father has had basal and squamish cell cancers both so far in his life. But melanoma is scary - it's the most severe and though her case is "3 out of 10 in severity" the name alone keeps rattling us.

Cancer, as a word, carries a lot of weight in my family. And fear. I've been working with panic and fear all week, trying to relax enough to feel the sadness underneath. Panic and fear can drive me into depression, anxiety, and then I am not really feeling what is going on: the deep awareness of impermanence, not as a concept, but as reality.

As Ilana said in her note:
I never broke a bone despite all of my time on a skateboard. I never became dangerously ill through my childhood and early adult life. No major accidents, no long-term risky habits. Very little death in my family. I never assumed I’d live forever, but I did have a misguided idea that I’d coast along for decades and somewhere down the road just not wake up one day. Nice and easy, no struggles along the way.
This is a well-written reminder that even for a woman like me, someone who lost both of her parents and other relatives early, impermanence is still so easy to deny. Even with my experience - in comparison to hers - we are relatively on the same page. Human beings scared as shit.

The flip side - a both/and flip side, not either/or -is that we are also really treasuring each other. Savoring. When I am able to recognize the panic and dissociation, I can connect to the deep sadness underneath. And also appreciation.

Her procedure to have this tumor removed is in just over a month. They'll know more then - making sure it hasn't spread to any lymph nodes, etc, though they doubt that is the case. It's a deep tumor, all the way through the dermis, so there'll be some recovery. Then we watch and wait.

It is incredibly likely that this will NOT be what kills her.

I am reminded that, except for when we are pretending we won't die, or hoping there will be "no struggles along the way," we are all watching and waiting. Always. Cancer seems to make it more real, but the fact is either of us could go any day now, in any number of completely undiagnosable but perfectly normal ways. A car crash. A fall down the steps. Nothing so dramatic as melanoma. 

And yet. Cancer. I am trying to respect it. And turn my fear into appreciation. It is a practice. A constant one.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Discernment and Structure

Student at my Washington Island writing retreat last week.
Discipline is a word I try to avoid using in my teaching.
It is a word that one of my teachers, Natalie Goldberg, does not use.
Most of the time we associate the word discipline with punishment.
Very few people respond to the word discipline with the gentleness I believe we need to continue practicing.

Usually I use the word structure to replace it - meaning, the positive parts of discipline (knowing where/when/how you will do your practice(s)) without the negative (punishment, cruelty, self-denigration). 


Thursday, June 11, 2015

When We Envy Ourselves

Student writing last weekend on Washington Island, Wisconsin

I gave a small talk of sorts at lunch today, the last full day of a week-long writing retreat I've been teaching. It turned out, as talks sometimes do, to be about something I didn't realize it was about. A student, towards the end, said it so succinctly: "We envy the week." Yes. We envy the week we have just had, already, and it isn't even done.

It's just six of us left, from thirteen last weekend. Six came for just the weekend, which was planned ahead of time. Then seven remained, one leaving a couple of days early. It's been a peaceful, powerful time. It takes tremendous courage and forgiveness to continue writing no matter what arises. All of the people here have been in my weekly classes for years, most of them also in feedback groups, working on longer memoir or book projects. A few cut deep into the things they have been writing around for a long time. All of us got tremendous insights, lots of time to write, wonderful food and compassionate community.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Reaching Across the Gap

There are gaps between everything.

Who we think we are and how we manifest to others.
What we want to get done and what we actually get done.
What we write and how it sounds to ourselves, reading aloud later, and how it sounds to others.

These gaps are natural, normal. But where we have gaps, we often believe we are lacking.

I am about to teach my first week-long writing retreat.
How am I preparing?
Not by reading, not by writing talks. By walking, by shaking, by dancing and stretching.