Thursday, October 13, 2005

Benet Pines 10/3-10/7

Days 1 and 2
I’ve been here for more than 24 hours now. I came to the Benet Pines Retreat Center—a contemplative getaway in Colorado Springs run by Benedictine nuns—for a week in order to think and write. I’m trying to make headway on my Master’s thesis. So far, my work has been productive. I spent much of yesterday evening and all day today writing. Around 4pm both days I’ve gone for long walks. I really like the solitude. I have no TV, no phone, no radio, no CDs to listen to… I could listen here on my laptop, but I left Abbey Road and Evolve (Ani DiFranco) out in the car. I made myself promise not to bring them here into my cabin. The only noise I want around me is outside my open window: wind worrying the pines and magpies fussing at black squirrels.

Let me tell you about yesterday first. I arrived early in the afternoon and checked in with Sister Josie at the main office. Then I drove down the dirt road to my designated cabin, Jesu Rama. [Please, could one of you language experts clue me in to the meaning of “Rama?”] I laughed when I pulled up. The cabin is the size of a Tuff Shed. I’m not lying. I unlocked the door and went inside where, to my delight, I found a cozy, charming writer’s nest. There is a kitchenette with a small refrigerator and microwave oven. There is a rocking chair with a corduroy cushion and crocheted afghan slung over its back. There is also a desk with a lamp and bookshelf containing an assortment of paperbacks. I had to call Mechelle on my cell phone at that point to report that the first book that caught my eye was Jung’s Man and His Symbols. “You won’t believe it!” I squealed into her answering machine, “They have Jung! I’m going to like it here!” Above the desk there is also a crucifix hung on a single nail. Its stainless steel Jesus has a sad, feminine face and long, spaghettilike legs that look like guitar strings needing to be plucked. I have a comfortable twin bed with flowered sheets and a clean, white bathroom that smells faintly of Pine Sol. The place is perfect.

Minutes after I arrived and unpacked, Sister Phyllis tapped on the door. She handed me a fistful of coffee filters “in case you run out.” She also told me she’s recently seen a doe and two fawns hanging out on the property. I said I hoped they dropped by for a visit.

After the sister left, I slipped my tennis shoes on and went for a walk. I crossed the road and headed up a trail—fringed with barren wild strawberry plants and kinikinik—toward the labyrinth. The labyrinth consists of a circular pathway outlined in hundreds of stones. I wound around to the center (Sue Monk Kidd and other "dissident daughters" would have been proud) and sat for a while on a stone bench. At my feet I noticed a small pit in which fires had been lit. I wondered what kinds of ceremonies had occurred here. Most retreatants are women, so I imagined the circle had facilitated everything from Catholic mass to goddess worship. Tired from my drive, I walked a bit further up the trail and lay down on a bed of pine needles. The ground was warm from the sun. I squinted, peering up into the lace of swaying branches. Then I fell asleep. When I woke twenty or thirty minutes later, I was a pincushion. Needles snagged in my clothes and hair. I didn’t care in the least. I returned to Jesu Rama, wrote some more, then curled up in bed and read Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, Specimen Days. It’s a sumptuous read—almost as good as The Hours. Cunningham is my idol; I hope I can someday be a fraction of the masterful writer he is.

Day 3
Today I woke around 8am and wrote until 2. Then I ate lunch and went for another hike. This time I took a trail that wound past an 8’ wooden cross—which struck me as displaced out here in the wild—and up to a small statue of St. Scholastica. Was there really such a woman? I don’t know, but the pleasure (bookish contentment?) on her white face made me smile. [Mechelle informed me later that St. Scholastic did, indeed, exist.] Finally the path led to a grotto up on a rocky incline. In the grotto was the figure of Mary. Surrounding her were stones and pine cones hand-placed in geometrical patterns and rows. Beneath one of the rocks—smooth and oval, an egg— someone had pressed an aspen leaf. Beneath another was the faded photograph of a baby boy. Under four others were slips of paper containing writing. I probably committed some kind blasphemy by doing what compelled me next, but I couldn’t resist: I gingerly pulled each slip from beneath its rock and read it. (Is it possible to spy on God?) They were mostly prayers. One asked Mary to heal a man by the name of Arthur. Another said she was trusting in the pope’s intercession for a loved one with ALS. Another bore a heart and read simply, “I love you.” The last, held in place by a jagged crystal, thanked “My most blessed goddess” for teaching her faith and endurance. It closed with, “I will to will your will.”

Looking at all of these offerings, I thought to myself, “People need repositories.” We do. We need them for our loves, our hopes, our sadnesses, our triumphs. We need to entrust them to someone or some thing. Perhaps, I wondered, God originated in the lackluster, pre-creation void. He or she was the color white, the absence of all color. Then, as we filled God up with all the things we need to give away—the spectrum of threads, rocks, scraps, flecks, memories, thumbprints, wishes—we stained him or her black: the convergence of all color, the suggestion of presence. I don’t know if I’m making any sense. It’s just what came to mind there on the mountain, at the grotto, sitting on a moss-covered boulder, watching my silhouette ripple down the embankment like a dark river.

Day 4
Last night I drove up to Denver to attend the Nine Inch Nails show with Mechelle. (On my way out I told the sisters I was off to go fellowship with a stadiumful of heathens and devil-worshippers. They flung a sponge soaked in holy water at my head. Such kidders, Josie and Phyllis. Of course I'm only joking :-).) Mechelle and I had a blast. My friend Steve was perceptive a while back when he called my fondness for rock concerts “Dionysian.” That’s usually how it is. Mechelle and I sipped beer, danced and played air tambourine like whirling—and slightly tipsy—dervishes. It was more than that, though. There were times when I stood completely motionless, simply drinking in the words, listening for the delicate pulse of this angry but sensitive musician whose thoughts are more consumed with God than most of the rest of us put together. It made me think about how a love/hate relationship with God is probably the truest kind.

Day 5
This is it: time to return to civilization. I’m going to miss this place, this little Tuff Shed out in the middle of nowhere. I accomplished a lot on my thesis while here—and was reminded how impossibly difficult fiction writing is. Will I ever get past this lazy thinking, these clichés? Sigh… Back to reality. Then again, I could always take the vows and stick around. Hmmm...very tempting. I think I'll go talk to the sisters...

Benet Pines:

Sunday, October 02, 2005


“Forced into a corner, I’ll choose truth over hope any day.”
Marjorie Williams

“Neither a romance nor a melodrama; just the truth. Truth was, to the end, the thing she handled best.” So wrote Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehle in the newspaper’s January 17, 2005, obituary for Marjorie Williams. Williams, a Post columnist and contributor to other publications such as Slate and Vanity Fair, died of liver cancer this past January 16th. She was 47 years old.

In its most recent issue, Vanity Fair (October, 2005) runs an excerpt from Williams’ memoir, “A Matter of Life and Death,” which she penned (but never finished) over the course of her three-year illness. Not only does the article treat us to one last helping of sharp, inspired writing; it also reinforces Von Drehle’s characterization of Williams as a staunch—what I like to call blood-letting—truth-teller. Unlike another certain “someone” profiled in this month’s VF—whose claim to fame is her Hilton name and whose pretty cerebral chandelier is, well, lacking a few bulbs—Williams’s writing displays an unmistakable combination of intelligence, wit, grace and translucence. A translucence so glaring you want to squint yet so subtle it lingers like extinguished candle.

I read it two weeks ago, and it still haunts me.

Williams, to again quote Von Drehle, “faced her death open-eyed.” While I find this extremely admirable—and reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s elegant audacity (“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” or “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me”)—I also find Williams' penetrating gaze jarring. She found out at age 43, as the mother of an 8-year-old and 5-year-old, that she had inoperable cancer. It was, she writes, “stage IV(b). There is no V, and there is no (c).” It’s the worst news I can imagine receiving in the prime of one’s life. She was told that she had three to six months to live. Because her tumors had already metastasized, she was not a candidate for surgery. Her only treatment option was chemotherapy, which, fortunately, kept her alive for years rather than months. Throughout her ordeal, Williams recorded her thoughts in a journal. Reading them makes you feel a bit like a voyeur—as if you’re peering through the slit of someone’s curtain, watching them shower. You know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t avert your eyes. The difference, though, is that Williams wrote her memoirs for an audience; she invites us into her inner sanctum—and undresses in front of us. “Don’t look away,” she says. “Now is not the time for politeness. Look. Look.”

So here it is: An intimate account of what it feels like to observe—and live—one’s own dying. Look if you dare…

We have all indulged this curiosity, haven’t we? What would I do if I suddenly found I had a short time to live…What would it be like to sit in a doctor’s office and hear a death sentence? I had entertained those fantasies just like the next person. So when it actually happened, I felt weirdly like an actor in a melodrama.

I live at least two different lives. In the background, usually, is the knowledge that, for all my good fortune so far, I will still die of this disease. This is where I wage the physical fight, which is, to say the least, a deeply unpleasant process. And beyond the concrete challenges of needles and mouth sores and barf basins and barium, it has thrown me on a roller coaster that sometimes clatters up a hill, giving me a more hopeful, more distant view than I’d expected, and at other times plunges faster and farther than I think I can endure. Even when you know the plunge is coming—it’s in the nature of a roller coaster, after all, and you know that you disembark at the bottom and not the top—even then, it comes with some element of fresh despair….I’ve hated roller coasters all my life.

But in the foreground is regular existence: love the kids, buy them new shoes, enjoy their burgeoning wit, get some writing done, plan vacations with [my husband], have coffee with my friends…What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal life as possible, only with more pancakes.

Sometimes I just feel immortal: whatever happens to me now, I’ve earned the knowledge some people never gain, that my span is finite, and I still have the chance to rise, and rise, to life’s generosity. But at other times I feel trapped, cursed by my specific awareness of the guillotine blade poised above my neck. At those times, I resent you—or the seven other people at dinner with me, or my husband, deep in sleep beside me—for the fact that you may never even catch sight of the blade assigned to you.

Sometimes I simply feel horror, that most elementary thing. The irreducible fear, for me, is the fantasy that I will by some mistake be imprisoned in my body after dying. As a child I never enjoyed a minute of any campfire stories of the buried-alive genre. And even without that unwelcome and vivid fear in my mind, I can’t find any way around the horror of being left alone down there in the dark, picked apart by processes about which I’m a little squeamish even when they’re just fertilizing my daylilies. Intellectually, I know it won’t matter to me in the slightest. But my most primal fear is that somehow my consciousness will be carelessly left behind among my remains….But, of course, I am already being killed, by one of nature’s most common blunders. And these blunt fears are easily deconstructed as a form of denial: if I’m stuck alive in my coffin, well, that will in some sense override the final fact of my death, no? I can see these dread-filled fantasies as the wishes they are: that I really can stay in this body I love; that my consciousness really will run on past my death; that I won’t just…die.

Sometimes, early on, death was a great dark lozenge that sat bittersweet on my tongue for hours at a time, and I savored the things I’d avoid forever. I’ll never have to pay taxes, I thought, or go to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I won’t have to see my children through the worst parts of adolescence. I won’t have to be human, in fact, with all the error and loss and love and inadequacy that come with the job…I won’t have to get old…It says a lot about the power of denial that I could so automatically seek (and find!) the silver lining that might come with dying of cancer in my 40s. For good or ill, I no longer think that way. The passage of time has brought me the unlikely ability to work, simultaneously, at facing my death and loving my life. Often it is lonely work.

For me, time is the only currency that truly counts anymore…Choose, choose, choose…These forced choices make up one of the biggest losses of sickness. But on the other side of this coin is a gift. I think cancer brings to most people a new freedom to act on the understanding that their time is important…The knowledge that time’s expenditure is important, that it is up to you, is one of the headiest freedoms you will ever feel.

It made me furious anytime someone tried to cheer me up by reciting some unhappy tale of a sister-in-law’s cousin who had liver cancer but now he’s 80 and hasn’t had been troubled by it in 40 years. I wanted to scream, “Don’t you realize how sick I am?” I knew how narcissistic and self-dramatizing this sounded. Still, it enraged me when anyone said, “Aaanh, what do doctors know? They don’t know everything.” I was working so hard to accept my death: I felt abandoned, evaded, when someone insisted that I would live.

[I also felt irritated] at the people who had memorably inappropriate reactions. I can’t count the times I’ve been asked what psychological affliction made me invite this cancer. My favorite New Yorker cartoon, now taped above my desk, shows two ducks talking in a pond. One of them is telling the other: “Maybe you should ask yourself why you’re inviting all this duck hunting into your life right now.”…One woman sent me a card to “congratulate” me on my “cancer journey” and quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that in order to achieve the life you deserved you had to give up the life you had planned. Screw you, I thought. You give up the life you had planned.

[I have always been drawn to] the dark side, sniffing under every rock…[My personality and upbringing] married me for life to the inconvenient argument, the longing to know what was real….Hence, even when my prospects for recovery or remission have looked best, there has always been one face of my being that was turned toward the likelihood of death—keeping in touch with it, convinced that denying it any entry would weaken me in ways I couldn’t afford. Forced into a corner, I’ll choose truth over hope any day.

But it turns out that hope is a more supple blessing than I had imagined. From the start, even as my brain was wrestling with death, my body enacted some innate hope that I have learned is simply part of my being. Chemotherapy would knock me into a passive misery for days. And then—depending on which formula I was taking at the time—a day would come when I would wake up feeling energetic and happy and very much like a normal person. Whether the bad time I had just had lasted five days or five weeks, some inner voice eventually said—and still says—“Never mind. Today is a ravishing day, and I will put on a short skirt and high heels and see how much of the future I can inhale.”

To read a Slate piece on Williams entitled, "Washington's Most Dangerous Profiler," go to