Gifts, Grace and Gratitude
Grace. Eating out with the Sugars tribe and yellow jackets. The VW microbus of my dreams.
Eagles - Take It To The Limit
“You can spend all your time making money
You can spend all your love making time
If it all fell to pieces tomorrow
Would you still be mine?
And when you're looking for your freedom
(Nobody seems to care)
And you can't find the door
(Can't find it anywhere)
When there's nothing to believe in
Still you're coming back, you're running back
You're coming back for more
So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit one more time.”
Sometimes it’s impossible to explain what comes, why or how, but this morning’s mantra is, “show me a sign”.
A highway sign, a sign of the cross, a signal to stay or go, a sign to point me in the right direction.
I am not a recovering Catholic.
The Catholic church was only nominally my family religion – my WASP father converted to marry my mother. And her WASP father converted and married his German Catholic wife, my maternal grandmother. Perhaps my mother’s mother was the most Catholic of all, but hers wasn’t of the Italian or Irish Catholic faith or practice. She had no extended family or culture of Catholicism, though she was a bigwig in Piedmont’s Catholic Church – her funeral presided over by no fewer than a dozen priests.
Even before her death signaled the end of our family’s Catholic era, her children had already drifted away from the faith, most having suffered divorce or modernism that questioned consensus reality. We lived in 1970s California. The church refused communion to the divorced and our surrounding cultures…well, they asked for different answers than the church could provide.
One summer afternoon, around the time my father left home, as his Catholic faith waned, our nuclear family of two adults and six children piled into the VW microbus and headed from our small town home toward the big city, California's state capitol, Sacramento. Our destination was a drive-in hamburger stand along the road into the city. We were going to eat out!
Eating out with my nuclear family usually meant:
* eating outside at the picnic table in our backyard or in parks or campsites
* family picnics
* church, school or 4-H potlucks
* or other people paying (grandparents!)
This time my folks would pay.
We kids were so excited. I remember crowding around the concrete table as my mother returned with a bag of food – the smell of hamburgers and French fries filled the air. My mother spread something on the table (napkins? a table cloth she brought?) and pulled out a milkshake! And real, not powdered, milk. And a few burgers and orders of fries. Onto each paper plate, she placed a few French fries, a quarter of the cheapest hamburger and a big squirt of the free catsup. Each paper cup was filled ¾-full with milk and topped with a scoop of milkshake. After a quick stir to each cup, it was almost time to eat. The eight of us sat down next to each other on the concrete benches and said grace together. When I looked up, the other customers were all staring at us.
How to multiply a single loaf into a meal for eight? Potlucks!
Take one loaf of sourdough French bread, cut in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise at 1” intervals. Turn the loaf over and rub a piece of cut garlic into the bottom crust (optional: rub more cut garlic into upper crust). Melt a cube of cheap margarine and brush onto the open insides. Reassemble the loaf, wrap it in aluminum foil and heat in oven to sizzling. Everyone at the potluck will be so dazed by the scent of bread, butter and garlic they won’t notice that their potluck dishes are feeding multitudes of hungry Sugars children.
These days, only one of my brothers and his family are holiday Catholics, the rest of us moved on. Of our 23 cousins, most have left the Catholic faith, if they were ever in it. Even my mother’s siblings drifted away, though my mother reclaimed her gospel justice Catholicism and her older sister joined a black Catholic church for music, joy and celebration.
This morning, I dreamt that my dead father and mother came to bring me home in family's light green VW microbus. It didn’t matter that they'd divorced over 45 years ago, this day they were a team, as they’d been in their 30’s. And I, at my current age, was ready for the ride. Only, they didn’t know the route and wouldn’t take my directions. They wouldn’t read the signs. All I could do was watch from the back seat as the scenery changed from city to suburbs to farms to small towns, from gardens to deserts to rolling hills, valleys and mountains. We were as lost as always, heading north, when home was south.
In a nearly deserted tourist town, we finally stopped and got out to stretch our legs and get directions. The drive-in from my youth was there, boarded up for the winter. No one there knew the way home, but I could hear the sound of the surf. The Pacific Ocean, Highway 1, the north-south artery that could get us home again. I walked out behind the buildings to the long, flat beach with cresting waves, the perfect beach for the earthquake-induced tsunami promised in recent articles. (1)
While there was no Highway 1, I knew the ocean as home, having lived my first year just yards from San Francisco’s Ocean Beach – the sea lives in me. All I needed to do was wait for winter, waves, earth shakes and bigger waves than any storm could produce to wash me away with the town and our now broken down bus.
Surely this grace of our landing place was a sign I could follow.
A new breast cancer memoir is to be released soon, Cancer Was Not A Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person. (2)
I’m trying to match and track the author, a survivor of earlier stage breast cancer who looks askance at popular cancer metaphors. Rather than digging deeper into what is, she uses the word complexity – gratitude is complex; cancer is complex; cancer was not a gift; it didn’t make me a better person. I just bet she hates the cancer as a journey metaphor too.
I agree, cancer won’t change you for the better. Or even change you at all, especially if you refuse to heed its signs. You have to let it change you in more than physical ways and most would resist the physical too, except that death is the wages of resisting treatment.
Only a few of us will make a quest of the forced experience and be willing to surrender all – whether to cancer or to death or to God or to life, experience, suffering, redemption and transcendence.
Gratitude, transformation, journeys and transformation are crazy-talk for the majority of cancer folks – so please, don’t force those metaphors and language on those who are suffering. Recognize that it’s probably your own inability to stay steady with suffering that’s prompting you to spout good advice.
Yet, if you’re the one suffering, I encourage you to ask what is possible for you now. Is there any peace, space, acceptance, joy, gratitude, learning, available to you in this moment? What kindness can you bring to what seems an intolerable situation? Can you sit quietly with what is unfolding, because it too needs your loving attention?
Plenty of others with cancer are naysayers to the “think positive” and "be grateful" advice they regularly receive or deflect. (3)
Teva Harrison, who's living with metastatic breast cancer, says, about gratitudes, “There’s a silver lining around here…somewhere…I can find it…” (4)
Sometimes, things just really, really suck and looking for the pony in a pile of horseshit is delusional, removing us from our immediate experience.
Gratitude expressed as platitudes – moralistic, flat responses meant to soothe – prickle those already in pain. Rather than providing relief, it irritates.
Others do it to us and we do it to ourselves too.
Gratitude can be a coping behavior as well as a transformative practice.
It’s up to each of us to make it what we will.
And, I think, it requires us to accept and be thankful for those sucky parts of our life too, the ones that suck vital energy and diminish our capacity to respond or even be. It asks us to forgive what we don’t love – whether the not loving is due to neglect or active rejection. It takes time and practice to learn to care for our suffering selves too.
Friends, my hour is up and my day has begun. The morning sun is shining bright in my face, urging me from bed and toward food. Or, honestly, toward anti-nausea meds – my current primary drug. It will be good to dose up again, to feel my gut upheaval calm for a spell. It will be good to drain two more liters from my belly and open up room for more food. I’m grateful that food still tastes good and I live where there’s incredibly delicious food. I’m grateful for a body as constant, yet changeable as the sea and sky. I’m grateful for the ability to transform experience into learning. And the ability to find words to share that I didn’t know was there when I sat down to write today.
I’m grateful for cancer, like I’m grateful for Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, because they’ve both marked me for life, steering me in directions I might not have consciously chosen, but that have been rich, transformative, remarkable and ultimately fulfilling.
I’m grateful for death – death is a gift, a promise. I patiently wait for the earth storm to end all earth storms and the giant waves that will sweep me away and into the great oneness.
Okay, I gotta stop waxing poetic and go eat!
And, of course, I’m grateful for each and all of you, because if you didn’t read, I wouldn’t write here and what a shame it would be stop the flow, to dwell in the backwater in my life, even as I patiently wait to return to the sea.
(1) The Really Big One
An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.
By Kathryn Schulz
July 20, 2015
When will a massive earthquake, tsunami hit the Pacific Northwest?
It’s been more than 300 years since a 9.0 earthquake hit the Cascadia subduction zone
By David Martin
November 13, 2015
(2) Cancer Was Not A Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person
(3) Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person
(4) Gratitudes by Teva Harrison
More Teva Harrison cancer comics at The Walrus