Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fellow Companions On The Road of Life:

Thanks for showing up! I know that there are thousands of other places where you could choose to spend time, especially before That Bowl Game tomorrow. If you are here, the odds are fairly good that you are A) suffering from a chronic illness or health crisis B) supporting someone who has a chronic illness or health crisis C) Suffering from a chronic health condition AND serving as part of the support system for others who are ill.

First, a few ground rules. This is not the place for a vendetta. Nor will miracle cures out of a Post Office Box in Chatham, Nebraska or elsewhere be hawked, clandestinely supported, or otherwise promoted. I will have to approve each response, given the number of spamming autobots out there.

The intent here is to find, create, promote and share tools for healing oneself, others, and the broader web that we are part of, whether or not our individual darkness presently allows us to perceive this. Storytelling is the single act that distinguishes humans from other tool using animals. It is from this central tool that I propose we start to find comprehension, fellowship (a disused and rarely used resource in modern society) and maybe a bit of context for healing.

I begin this with a transpersonal story about awareness, healing and companionship that has decided to call itself

"Women Who Teach Birds To Fly"

As I write this blog entry, it was almost exactly two years ago that Shelly closed her eyes and finished with the here and now part of her story of being. She had a recurrence of oral cancer, and as is true of so many cancers, that didn't kill her, but a secondary infection did so.

During her first bout with cancer in 2002, Shelly lived with me. She was all of 4'11". (We granted her an honorary half inch to round her height up for political purposes.) Oral cancer required radiation, removal of about 30% of her tongue and chemotherapy. Her living situation had just changed, and she found herself newly single, as was I. Shelly was determined to live through her cancer, and Helen and I were equally determined to see that she had every possible advantage we could give her. She had to be carried around, and carefully due to the bruising from radiation.

 Her weight dropped to 85 lbs. and she was kept hydrated and fed when a team of friends invented the canteloupe/watermelon/ice protein shake slushy, which was the only food she could tolerate for months due to the swelling, pain, and her damaged immune system.

I cannot begin to describe the physical pain she felt, because oral morphine and merciful short term memory removed it from her consciousness on a daily basis. 

In all of this, she decided that she was going to live, one way or another. "Invader Zim" became her teacher in the world of guided imagery to kill cancer cells. Zim and Grr piloted their way through her blood stream and lymphatic system, removing everything that wasn't supposed to be there, stimulating her bone marrow to make a healthy immune system and keep her alive. I had just spent six weeks in a PTSD Outpatient Program, and was busy with some of my own healing at the same time. We watched a lot of cartoons and old movies, laughed, inhaled nature documentaries, and otherwise supported each other.

After Shelly's chemo and radiation therapy were done with and she was deemed healthy enough for travel, her mother flew out to Bremerton and drove her home to the Midwest for the next years of her adventure, where we unfortunately lost contact.

During her ten year remission she did some very some remarkable things, and appeared once again on my doorstep in 2009, following a bad marriage with complications. In that time she had earned her degree in Social Work, become a political force in the Democratic Underground.

An incident that highlights the sort of person that she became was that she taught a bird how to fly.

In the 1980's there was a popular detective series titled "Beretta", about a PI who had a large bird in a very small cage. Unfortunately this created a trend to buy cocatoos and house them in cages too small to allow them to spread their wings. Shelly happened upon such an unfortunate bird, named Gideon, and decided to improve the quality of said bird's life. She started by teaching him how to fly.

It was fair to say that Gideon was emotionally damaged and physically stunted by his earliest years on the planet and interactions with humans. He was ignored  for hours, kept in a very small cage, and otherwise neglected when Shelly came into his story, improving life for both of them.

He was shy, distrustful, and otherwise difficult, armed with a beak strong enough to snap broom handles and puncture flesh with ease.

She started by teaching him trust, and a very simple game: bouncing on a bed while she clapped her hands. He imitated this, and eventually learned to fly after a fairly long course of what can only be described as innovative cognitive and physical therapy. He had to learn to trust at least one person, to learn to play, and finally, to stretch his wings and fly.

It was as good for Shelly as it was for Gideon. She was going through a rough patch in her life, and with Gideon snuggled partially under her shirt, the two of them faced the challenges the world presented to them together as cross-species friends.

Shelly, Winter 2010 with Gideon.

Each brought out the best in the other.  Her insatiable curiosity about the world led her into a deep study of the web of life. On one hike on the Burke Gillman Trail she found a spider's web composed of the webs of five different species of spiders, sharing a single structure. Cooperative inter-species engineering at its best, she said. (Sadly none of the photos could show the details. If it happened once I'm sure it is happening elsewhere.)

In the years between 2002 and 2007 I was afforded the rare chance to spend my summers in England at a Naturist Camp outside of St. Albans (formerly the Capital of pre-Roman Britain.)  There were many gifts this time brought to me. One of them was the chance to meditate on my connections to a remarkable woman who a century ago composed a singular book on her relationship to the natural world. Her name was Opal Whitely, and the resonances with my life were and are striking. Here, in brief, is part of her story that she has shared with me.

As a small child Opal Whitely wrote a book about her relationship to nature, composed poetry, and was widely celebrated as a child prodigy for several years, until (unjustified) doubts arose about the ability of a child to write so clearly. She was a naturalist, a New Thought (Unity Church) minister, and had suffered emotional and physical abuse as a child. The controversy over her ability to write so well at so early an age drove her to leave the United States for India and eventually England, where she settled in London. During the WWII bombings she suffered head trauma and spent the remainder of her life (she died in 1992) at a mental hospital in St. Albans. Opal's life crossed into mine in several ways, her story changing my life thus:

In about 1994 I was married and living in West Seattle. It was a wonderful day, and I was typsesetting wedding invitations for a druid friend who was to be married later that summer. From the yard arose this cacaphony from a murder of crows and other birds who were dive bombing the house. Puzzled, I went outside, to find a young crow fledgeling sitting on the ground, where it looked at me with its young and innocent blue eyes. Unable to fly to the nest which was some sixty feet up, it was just sitting on the ground as the neighbor's  cat slowly stalked it. Realizing what was coming, I asked the spouse what we should do. In my opinion, the cat didn't need another meal, so we broke more than a few laws by scooping up the fledgeling on a broom, brought it into the house and installed her in a large cage in the kitchen.

I'd cracked open the Benjamin Hoff book on Opal Whitely (looking for a clever passage for the wedding invitations), so the crow was named Opal. Opal was never domesticated, nor wild, but had a life in between. She had full run of the house, flying two or three laps around the ground floor before her morning bath and breakfast. She made more than a few human friends, and would often sit on the back of a chair and bounce up and down in the normal crow display of playful dominance. Opal could talk, though rarely did so. She kept in touch with her flock, calling out to them near sunset and listening to their replies.

The second bit of resonance with Opal Whitely was that I spent those summers in Spielplatz shortly after several hospitalizations for my service-induced Post Traumatic Stress and it accompanying depression, nightmares, etc. Opal Whitely too had been hospitalized for similar disorders. The half-century difference in treatment modalities that kept her hospitalized had me free and on medication and regular psychiatric visits.

I would  sit in my small cottage at Spielplatz, not more than a few hundred yards from where Gerald Gardner, promoter of Wica and Nuinn, Ross Nichols, re-founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids would shape religious movements whose stories are still being written , and but a few miles from where Opal Whitely spent the last fifty years of her life, and wonder at how a child, scribbling with crayons on grocery sacks would save my life and give me ways to find meaning and purpose that extends past time, past personal consciousness and into Songs wherein we are the singers, sounding out a note or phrase now and again. Not a tangled skein, but parts of an intimate and intricate pattern of purpose, meaning and lives that can wrap round us and speak through us in some moments.

Without my knowing, Opal's poems and life led me into "The Thin Places" and back into participating more fully in life.

When Shelly moved in with me for a second time in 2009 I loaned her Benjamin Hoff's book on Opal Whitely, and she understood. Shelly was much like Opal as a child, and was much like the woman Opal could have grown into, given different circumstances and care.

Just one more bit in this part of Shelly's story. At the end of her life she was afraid, not of dying, but of having lived a life meaningless to others, one that was only full of the Scared And Dark And Cold. On the last day here on earth, she spontaneously opened her eyes and said something like "Wow! I am so loved!". And in that state of Knowing who and what she truly was-and had always been-she passed on a few hours later. Unknown to most of us, just days before dying, she had founded a charity to advocate for children who otherwise had no voice. Just like her to do the unexpected.

A favorite memory of mine of Shelly was late one night in 2010--she fell asleep watching a National Geographic documentary, listening to music, and reading a book on lightning. Even while sleeping, she multi-tasked.

I close this part of this story that crosses more than a century with a poem by Opal-

Holy Mother Earth
the trees and all nature
are witnesses
of your thoughts and deeds.
Winnebago saying
Earth voices are glad voices
and earth voices come up
from the ground through the plants
And in their flowering
and in the days
before these days are come
they do tell the earth songs
to the wind.
And the wind in her goings
does whisper them to folks
so other folks do have knowings
of earth songs.