As I look out at the garden I find the onset of early spring an inspiration
Well, it is the 4th week of Lent and I have just started a 4th course of chemo after a five week break. The gap has helped my body recover, so it is a strange paradox to accommodate again, as I take drugs to prolong my life, while having to accept they will once more make me feel ill.
Another episode of losing in order to find, one of our greatest spiritual means of learning. In this case I will have to relinquish my strongly grown white hair once more and take on board gastric upset, alongside neurasthenic numbness in my feet and hands accompanied by increased tiredness and whatever other unknown symptoms the treatment has potential to produce. All this is held alongside a certain sense of reassurance that the cancer cells are being opposed and held back hopefully, for another unpredictable period of time.
The season of Lent points to progressive loss experienced by Jesus as he moves slowly towards his death; loss of the familiarity he has built up during 33 years of human life on earth, alongside loss of status,and renown. His loss of ‘loyal’ friends who sleepily distance themselves in the Garden of Gethsemane, all indicate a path of abandonment ahead, where he will know the ultimate ignominy of being nailed to a crucifix naked, hung up for all to see. Reduced to emptiness, utter vulnerability.
I find this speaks to me powerfully; a route of depletion that is heading towards an uncertain end.
It is a mystery to me that although unknown and unpredictable, reduction of this kind is not just a source of apprehensive loss. It also becomes a means of lowering old ego identity, where, with awareness of extreme vulnerability I am invited to enter life at a different and often more enhanced level. I find that people I meet want to talk honestly, and feel enabled to do so, since I believe, a certain barrier preventing real communication has gone down.There is a greater sense of aliveness in meeting others within such a genuine, open frame. The abundant life Jesus speaks of is there incipiently within us all, yet so often our driven, activity filled lives can obscure the true meaning and transmission of it. Without realising, we can subtlety become competitive and threatened by each other’s success. We have a great capacity, I believe, to be a source of healing and invigoration to each other if we are able to remain open in an unguarded way, taking into account the basic frailty common to us all. Such things as competition and comparison are no longer relevant as we genuinely attempt to learn from each other and remain open to the potential of natural change and development this may bring.
Part of such awareness is a vital ability to accept our moment by moment gift of life, but in parallel with that, to acknowledge our progressive journey towards the end of life, that will manifest in an individual way for each one of us. To accept death as part of life is not only honest but may even be enhancing if we do not shut out the lessons there are to discover along our life-learning trajectory of loss and gain.
With this openness in mind, I have arranged to visit our local hospice, Priscilla Bacon Lodge ( not planned, but on Good Friday) since it is likely I will need their services at some point. Mark and I know a counsellor who works there and has offered to give us a tour and introduction. It seems right to assess the unit while I am reasonably well, in order to feel some familiarity if approaching it in a greater state of weakness later. It strikes me forcibly, that unlike the journey Christ took to the cross, I am blessed with kindness from people along the route who support and gently guide me along this Via Dolorosa.
As I began my new chemo course I was introduced to a young nurse who had cared for her mother through a long episode of motor neurone disease; an illness that is much worse than cancer in it’s cruel and inevitable process of disintegration. This experience, I learned (while she was setting up my intra- venous chemo) had led to a sense of commitment that drew her to work in palliative care at Priscilla Bacon Lodge. She boosted my confidence by relating how dedicated the staff are to patient care, with attention being given to every detail that allows a person to live their dying. This is my aim; I want to live my dying. It gave me strength to hear the natural and genuine understanding and enthusiasm she had experienced and gained from.
Before going home, we called in to visit the hospital Chaplain who has become a friend . Emerging out into the corridor later, we saw my oncologist, obviously in a hurry, holding a precarious looking disposable cup, brim full with coffee. But he stopped, took my hand and said I looked well. We exchanged just a few sentences, but what a difference these genuine human contacts make, to both parties. The giving and receiving is a mutual exchange that melts away the reductionist attitude generally evoked within attempts to make hospital processes a success. Targets do not induce genuine relationship and militate against the warm and natural tendency we have towards real meeting that makes a strong contribution towards real healing.
As I look out at the garden I find the onset of early spring an inspiration and confirmation of these instincts for natural growth. Chemo has given me an urgent compulsion to plant things, so in response to my autumnal enthusiasm, bulbs are now emerging in full colour. “The flowers appear upon the earth. The time of the singing of birds is come” calls the Song of Solomon. The amalgam of sheer energy and colour being pushed through the ground impels a miracle of life, providing opportunity for me to engage and relate with it.Yesterday my daughter and I visited the local nursery coming back with a barrow load of plants that I spent a sunny two hours planting among the bulbs. A relationship of pattern colour, perfume and shape makes for even further beautiful effect as they all, like us,have an inbuilt potential to enhance each other.
Mary Oliver sums up this awareness in her poem;
The Singular and Cheerful Life
The singular and cheerful life
of any flower
in anyone’s garden
or any still unowned field-
If there are any-
by the heart,
by it’s colour,
by it’s obedience
to the holiest of laws:
Until you are not.
What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?
Oh my dear heart,
my own dear heart,
full of hesitations,
questions, choices of directions,
look at the world,
Behold the morning glory,
the meanest flower, the ragweed, the thistle.
Look at the grass.
I am off now to walk round the garden in a brief patch of sun, to spend time looking at the grass.