As I’ve stumbled through the past year and all its crises, I’ve been gifted with several things that have helped me tremendously…and this time, I’m not referring to people.
I’m a writer, a completely-up-in-my-mind person whose brain is usually floating somewhere about two feet above and behind my actual head. I arrive behind my own eyes only when something difficult, frightening, or painful happens to my body. Otherwise, I float through my world, half-listening to spoken music that no one else hears, half-watching for signs no one else sees.
The music and the signs are always there for me, and always have been. Some mystics call it “the language of omens.” It’s how the universe communicates with us human beings. It can be a particular song on the radio, a waft of cologne, a raptor drifting overhead on a breeze. For some people, it’s “pennies from Heaven.” For others, it’s feathers–a particular type, found over and over again on sidewalks and doorsteps. Everyone has a unique language that they speak with the universe. Their signs will make no sense to anyone else. But for those of us who have found our particular signs, their appearance (or disappearance) can mean everything.
Want to watch my shoulders climb nearly to my ears, quivering under high strain? Let Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” play on the stereo. I used to love that song. I used to love the whole album. But over time, that song has accrued some really nasty mojo. If I hear it, that means something bad is on its way, and I’d best be in a safe zone when it hits. The Eagles’ “Hotel California” is the same way. They both mean “steer clear of whatever is happening…right now.” Both songs have served as important warnings that I heeded when others didn’t, and they paid the price. I suspect, though I can’t know for sure, that both those songs may have literally saved my life.
Over time I’ve gathered a small world of signs like that: “Enter Sandman.” Ravens. “Hotel California.” Crows. Dogs, especially black ones. Hawks. Obsession cologne. Empty journals. A peculiar mustiness that I have only ever been able to call “The Stink.” I have a swirling mix of bad and good omens packed into a lexicon in my head that is always active. My brain continuously scans my environment for any hint of these signs. There are even spoken phrases that have profound import for me. If I catch myself saying, “Oh hell with it,” I know I should go do whatever action it is I’m grousing about–it will be the right thing to do (no matter how unhappy I may be about doing it). If I catch myself saying “F*** it,” I know to drop whatever it is and run, not walk, in the other direction. Whatever course of action it is, no matter how well-considered I think it is, it will not only end badly for me, it will end badly for everyone involved. “F*** it” is what happens when there’s no radio available to play “Enter Sandman” or “Hotel California.”
Yes, I’m aware of confirmation bias. Yes, I’m aware of self-deception. Yes, I get that “Illusion is the first of all pleasure.” I’m quite aware that many of my New Age friends from college would be paralyzed for an hour in their homes, frantically consulting their Tarot decks, over every possible life decision–even when and where to go grocery shopping. Because you can’t meet the man of your dreams while grocery shopping (like that last reading promised!) if you’re in the wrong grocery store at the right time.
I’m also aware I was once one of those people.
It is tremendously seductive (and destructive) to believe that I can somehow intuit my way through the day, thereby avoiding hardship and making all the right moves. I used to cultivate being in that heightened state at all times. I called it being “attuned,” or “awakened,” as if the music and the signs were more real and more important to me than the business of my actual life.
Now I see it for what it was, and is: half-checked-out, half-aware, half-living, using a bad coping skill to not-deal with my mounting anxiety. It’s like living my entire day in a protective crouch, instead of walking upright. I thought it was saving me a world of trouble. Instead, it was keeping me out of my world.
For many years during my New Age obsessions, every time I traveled, a hawk flew overhead. And not just any hawk. A particular hawk would follow my car for dozens of miles, flying straight as an arrow over the interstate. This is not normal hawk behavior. They gyre, they sweep, they let thermals carry them. This hawk was actively working to stay aloft and over my car, just far enough ahead that I could see him. He wouldn’t turn back until I was within a stone’s throw of wherever I was headed. I loved that hawk. And I knew–having once seriously considered becoming a falconer, even seeking out a master falconer who was willing to take me on as an apprentice–that the hawk, my hawk, was actually a series of particular hawks over the years. They started young, they grew, they aged, and eventually were replaced by a juvenile again. What an honor, to have generations of omen-messengers riding overhead! How special I must be! How protected! How blessed!
Imagine my horror to see my hawk disappear one day and not come back. Even my new husband noted it was gone. “I wonder what’s up with the hawks,” he said one day. My heart froze, and I waited for him to clarify. “I used to see ’em all the time,” he continued. “Now it’s like every hawk in the southeast just up and died.” I swallowed my terror and asked my Tarot deck dozens of questions the second I had the house to myself.
I racked my heart and soul (and Tarot deck) for years, trying to find an answer to the hawk question that made sense. The deck kept telling me that the hawk was no longer my messenger because of the life choices I’d made. I’d gotten married, moved to a different state, and had a kid–all of which felt good, felt right. Yet doing these things without my hawk overhead made me feel as if I’d somehow steered wrong, like God was no longer present in my life and that the omens wouldn’t resume until I steered right again. I kept on with my little life, though, hawk or no hawk–because I simply couldn’t believe that God would deny me the happiness of having a family.
Imagine my shock one day to find out that hawks are considered by many to be a warning.
Yes, hawks are a totem animal and a messenger. They’re also considered to be a sign from the universe to change course, to stop whatever it is you’re doing–cease the mindset that has put you on this path–and steer right, or you’ll end up in trouble. When I described to an old friend how hawks used to fly directly over my head for miles, he spluttered, “Jesus, Kathryn, what did you do?”–in the same tone of voice that I might use if I saw my daughter smear poop on the wall.
I discovered that day, hawks are essentially the equivalent of my saying “f*** it.” My hawk disappeared for years during my marriage and motherhood not because I was doing something wrong, but because I was finally doing something right. When I quit hiding behind my omens and got out there and started living, I found a husband, and a daughter, and a life. It’s all well and good to think I’m attuned to something higher…as long as that “something higher” is the man and girl I chose to stand by my side, not the illusion of meaning that weaves between me and some DJ’s choice of song on the radio. True meaning isn’t found like a penny on the sidewalk. True meaning is built through years of connection between human beings and their environment. The penny on the sidewalk is just the universe winking at us, saying, “I see what you did there.” The trick is to listen to our own hearts and decide if that thing we did is any good…for us.
A few weeks ago, I was walking home after putting my daughter safely on her school bus. The morning was beautiful, bright and clear–cool, but unseasonably warm for February. My thoughts were unseasonable, too. It was the kind of morning that anyone would have called beautiful…yet I was bitter, heavy-hearted, laughing in an acid way about my cancer and its treatment, baring my teeth at the prospect of an early death. It wasn’t defiance in the name of living. It was a toxic mental stew of spite and recrimination. I was thinking deliberately hateful thoughts about everyone and everything in my life, as if lashing out could somehow protect me from the pain I was feeling at the prospect of losing them…and of them losing me.
Then I heard a beautiful piercing shriek, followed by a flash of snowy underbelly as a hawk launched herself out of a tree beside and ahead of me. She stooped out of the tree like a bombshell, right over the sidewalk at my head height, for absolutely no reason at all. There was no prey on that sidewalk, nothing moving that might have attracted a raptor’s mistaken attention. She wasn’t close enough to attack me. She flashed her whole belly at me, her wings wide in a flair too high to do any good whatsoever for hunting–but did a beautiful job of getting my whole attention. She worked hard, pumping at the air with both wings to regain the altitude she’d lost, and turned away from me. Then she picked up a thermal and began an effortless, practiced gyre, sliding higher in the sky toward a more usual hunting position for a hawk her size and age. After just a minute, she disappeared over the treeline and into the bright, beautiful morning.
I’d like to say that I snapped out of that awful thought process that instant. I’d like to say that I took the sign to heart. I didn’t, and I haven’t. Yet. But it put a dent in me. I’ve seen a half-dozen more hawks over the last few weeks. They have all appeared when I’ve indulged in bad thinking. The warning is beginning to counterweight those bad thoughts. I recognize this message now. I’ve seen it before, and this time, I know what it means. And just like “Enter Sandman,” it’s not a message I dare ignore for long.
As I said when I began this piece, I’ve added another few signs to my lexicon over the last few months of this cancer ride. Unlike my New Age days, I’m not slavish about them. I don’t obsess over them. I haven’t pulled out my Tarot cards in months. I’ve been focusing my attention where it needs to be focused: on my care, my writing, my family, and my friends.
Like the sudden reappearance of hawks, these signs have been pretty impossible to ignore. And I’ve begun to realize that they’re not signs of warning, but intentional signs toward growth, toward understanding, toward maturity…toward a single word that my sister said to me the other night. I hated that word. I had an immediate, visceral, willful reaction toward it when she said it, which is a sure sign that (like “hell with it”) I may hate what I have to do, but I’d better bloody do it: surrender.
It began with a poem I’ve loved for years, David Ignatow’s “#52” from Leaving the Door Open. I found #52 many years ago, in the days before the internet. I laboriously copied the poem by hand from a library book (copy machines being somewhat rare and expensive back then–or at least a serious pain in the ass–and smart phones as yet uninvented), and re-typed it when I got home that day. That typed copy was a fixture on the wall of every office I ever had for years. But, like hawks, the poem disappeared when I got married and moved and had a kid.
Paying bills at my desk the other day, I picked up a recent stack of paperwork I’d been meaning to file. The stack shifted in my hand and I caught at it quickly. But one slim sheet of white paper slipped out of the stack as if it had materialized in midair. It drifted in a quick arc, and stopped on the floor at the exact distance and orientation that I could read it with both eyes, damaged and whole.
This is what the paper said:
“.52 It is annihilation of the person you became in meeting people who cannot exist for you in your room. You shed them painfully and are frightened, left with the person you were, this with whom you are now, composed of fear and doubt setting you adrift. You are nowhere in particular and do not know that you exist except as these feelings. It is the end of you personally, become the ocean of your feelings. Fish are in that water: sharks and whales and all other manner of living fins and tails.
Is it a giddy moment for you to have become an ocean in your small, private room? Nothing more can be said until you learn what whales and sharks and other moving fins do in your waters, for they could not exist without your feelings having become oceanic and a nourishment for other life than your lost one–then to have discovered this life in you become a festive occasion. –Ignatow, David. Leaving the Door Open. New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1984.”
If this poem were to be summed up in a single word, it might be “surrender.” Not “give up,” or “quit trying,” but surrender–to accept where (and whom) I am and figure out what’s good about it. #52 meant the world to me when I was going through the painful process of finding (and losing) schooling, friends, jobs–in short, doing the soul-work of becoming an adult and finding my way in the world. #52 continues to mean a hell of lot now that I’m in the painful process of finding (and losing) parts of the life I built all those years ago…and discovering what that means for the next phase of my life, for my treatment, or possibly for my family’s life beyond mine.
The “surrender” sign continued when I found an article written by Elizabeth Gilbert titled “Your Pain, Your Gain.” The article is about a man named Jim MacLaren who lost his leg in an accident as a young man, only to be struck by another vehicle later in life and rendered quadriplegic. In part, the article says, “We’ve all seen this happen. Destiny starts raining down hammers on somebody and will not let up. Just when your friend’s cancer is in remission, her house burns down. On the same day your sister gets fired, her husband walks out on her… Sometimes it’s one catastrophe after another. You don’t know whether you should duck, weep, run screaming, or just start punching in all directions.” And after the past year I’ve had–losing both my mentor and his wife to cancer, suddenly losing all feeling in both legs (and slowly getting it back), being told I had lesions on my spine, being diagnosed and treated for one cancer only to turn around and (possibly) find a second one…as one of the techs at one of the eye clinics said when he heard my story, his face pale and his eyes wide, “Sometimes life just isn’t fair.” Buddy, some days that feels like the understatement of the century.
But then the article continued with something familiar–a #52 all its own. “[Jim MacLaren] kept reaching for…a spirit of divine curiosity, which pushed him to ask, Who am I now, after I’ve lost everything? By the time I met Jim, he’d answered that question…he radiated certainty that his entire purpose…was to live in a state of unconditional love…[he] said the world is filled with people who have suffered horribly and crawled away broken. They never reached catharsis; they just got shattered and stayed shattered. And then there are the great masters (Gandhi, Mandela, King) who used their suffering as an incredible engine to transform into something better. Jim MacLaren taught me never to waste my pain–he taught me to enter straight into it with divine curiosity instead of running from it.”
There’s that music again. Surrender. Do so, and you will find “the life in you become a festive occasion.” On my good days, I remember how instantly sorry I felt for that poor young tech at the eye clinic. I didn’t intend for my story to horrify him; I was merely reporting the facts as they’d occurred, and as they pertained to my being there. On my good days, I still want to go back and find him and give him a big hug and say, “See? I’m still here. Yeah, that day sucked, but look–I’m still here. And I’m okay.” Because I think that young man needs to hear that. I would’ve, at his age, hearing what he’d heard. Hell, I need to hear it now, at my age, going what I’m going through.
As if these two signs weren’t enough, I then found Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Emperor of All Maladies…and his book The Gene…and because of him I found Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor…all of which center around the theme of identifying precisely what an illness is, and (more importantly) what it isn’t…and to make one’s heart-level-decisions based on the reality, not the demons. The books are all about surrendering to your circumstances and finding the life that’s worth living within those circumstances, not wasting your remaining time fighting an unbeatable series of opponents that exist only in your own (and other people’s!) heads.
And then I found Dr. Oliver Sacks.
Yep, if you’re old enough to have seen or heard about the 1990 Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro movie Awakenings, then you know who Dr. Oliver Sacks was. I missed it entirely at the time. The last thing on my mind in 1990 was a movie about comatose encephalitis patients being awakened by a clinical drug trial. But Dr. Oliver Sacks was that doctor in real life. Those were his real-life patients. They really did wake up from 50-year comas, though it was only for a brief, heart-wrenching while. And he really did write a book about them called Awakenings. It was just one of multiple wonderful books Dr. Sacks wrote about a host of rare and strange neurological diseases that he witnessed over the course of a long, interesting career. When I was in college, I noticed one of his other books if only for its unique name: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I remember it making quite a splash at the time. I still didn’t read it. I was too busy being a college student.
But like Dr. Mukherjee, I’ve discovered that Dr. Sacks was another in a long line of (it’s really quite unfair to the rest of us!) “whole package” people–a good doctor who was also a hell of a writer and, by all accounts, a hell of a person, too. Dr. Sacks diagnosed and treated a lot of garden-variety neurological problems over the years, but most of the time, he flatly admitted to being unable to do anything but watch in awe and take notes as his most uniquely cursed patients went on to figure out their own ways of navigating what to most people would be soul-shattering circumstances.
Dr. Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with OM in 2005. He wrote about his experiences in two essays in his book, The Mind’s Eye. I’m glad I didn’t find those essays any sooner–I’d have been gibbering terrified if even half the stuff that happened to his vision happened to mine. Until I started reading his book, I had no idea just how awful the experience of losing parts of one’s vision could be. I thought going blind meant first you see, then you don’t. Dr. Sacks reported his losses minutely, with heart, even with humor, even as he reported thinking that it was snowing in his kitchen because he could no longer tell the difference between the depth of the room inside his window and the depth of the world outside it. He mentioned that he wouldn’t dream of driving, because he couldn’t understand a building anymore–certain buildings had become a collection of lines going in all directions with no depth, like a Picasso come to life. He utterly failed to mention the part of that circumstance that would send me howling straight to the loony bin: that he no longer saw in any depth whatsoever; that he’d lost all autonomy to move about his life as he chose; that he had to learn to navigate an entire world turned into a horror show 24/7; and that he learned to trust everyone else around him to help him navigate, because he no longer could.
He even used that word, the word I hate so much: surrender. The only way the message could’ve come through any louder was if he’d used it on page 352.
Instead of battling uselessly against his circumstances, he focused on the things he could still do. He continued his work as a neurologist (!), successfully treating patients with incredibly complex diseases. He continued to write books (!) while half-blind and without any stereoscopic vision left. He continued to swim miles every day in the river in NYC (!) as his fun (!) exercise. And the OM didn’t get him for another nine years. He passed of secondary liver metastasis in 2015.
So, as my very wise sister said, it’s time to surrender. Quit fighting the bad history I’ve let dominate my head over the last few months; focus on what I have, which is that my family loves me, and we’re in this together. Quit fighting the things I’ve lost, like driving at night, or teaching taekwondo; continuing that mental battle is distracting me from the things I still have, like my child and my husband and my family and my writing. Like my New Age addiction phase, I’m allowing my mental fights with my circumstances to distract me from my one little life. I need to appreciate it before it’s gone. Because, make no mistake, there’s a 50/50 chance that my little life will be taken. All I can do is appreciate my child, my husband, and my family before I’m gone…and let them do the same with me. It’s hard to appreciate someone who’s acting like a monster half the time.
So, as my wise sister said, I need to “surrender to the awkwardness” of being cared for by family. She should know. She spent months serving as at-home-care for my grandfather as he failed under a combination of congestive heart failure, multiple heart attacks, stroke, and bladder cancer, all contracted within a year of his dying (if that’s not destiny piling on, I don’t know what is). She told me, “Even when I was on the bathroom floor with Grampy at three in the morning, helping him with his diaper, I knew there was no place I’d rather be. And so did he.”
Surrendering is not the same as giving up. It’s about picking the battles my family and I can win together.
So, there’s my sign. I don’t like it. I don’t want it. But I’d better start paying attention to it. Because it’s a lot easier to change roads when you know which one you’re on. And I can’t know that until I read the signs.