2013 began with a sore throat I couldn’t shake. Two months and three doctors later, a growth was discovered at the base of my tongue. The bad news was cancer. The good news was that the particular type of cancer had a hopeful treatment prognosis. After three rounds of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation, last month's post-treatment PET scan looked good.
I appreciate people who blog during treatment, but I decided not to publicly disclose or discuss my condition online during that time. Nevertheless, much of the creative output I posted throughout the year ended up reflecting my experience. Since I'm out of the woods for the time being, I decided to end the year by coming out of the cancer closet and provide the context for the illness-related work I posted over the year:
Kisagotami’s beautiful son, the light of her life ran into the street and was struck dead by a runaway cart. She wandered the village in a blur, child clutched to her heart. She went to the Buddha for an herb to revive her son. He sent her into the village to find a mustard seed from a household that had never suffered the death of a loved one. Of course, there was not a single home without loss. She found that the living are few, but the dead are many. Her personal grief was transformed into compassion for all beings.
Based on a traditional Buddhist Parable
My maternal grandmother lived into her eighties, her last months bed-bound in a nursing home. Up until the end, she cared about her appearance and insisted she have her hair and makeup done. I couldn’t imagine what comfort she found in the mirror’s reflection of sparse hair and time-eroded skin and features.
Almost twenty years later, the image I see in my own mirror appears decades younger than the person who looks back from a photo of myself snapped moments before.
The permanent self is an illusion. It feels like I’m killing time, but time is killing me.
Some medical treatments work by attacking the body. Vaccines include a dead or weakened germ to trigger the production of antibodies. Allergy shots inject minute amounts of allergens into our bloodstream to elicit desensitization. Chemotherapy eliminates cancer by killing fast growing cells. In each case, the weapon of poison is used as medicine.
One of the most pervasive psychological afflictions humans suffer from is self-centeredness. The poison of personal pain, illness and misfortune can act as a medicine if we use it to generate compassion for the countless others around the world who experience similar or even greater suffering.
I’ve lived a pretty charmed life for the past fifty years. I’ve never known hunger, grew up in a loving home, always had a safe place to live, worked at jobs with opportunity for growth and learning, had a lifetime of satisfying creative pursuits, enjoyed twenty years and counting in a great marriage, and have two children who are thriving.
I got some unexpected bad health news recently and thought for a moment, “Why me?” It only took an instant to realize that the better question was “Why not me?” No one is exempt from the radical uncertainty of life.
The art of balance is all about managing weight. At first thought, taking on the lightest possible load seems the best strategy. It’s not.
Gravity requires sufficient mass to ground us within its stabilizing embrace. Without enough well-arrayed ballast, a stray gust of wind would send us flying topsy turvy; a passing fancy could shanghai us into insensible service; or a glancing blow from the hand of fate might knock us down into dark despair.
Over time, a well-weighted garland of burdens strengthens the will, opens the heart and fosters an equilibrium that’s immune to misfortune or boon.
I usually create out of joy and wonder. I've been blessed for most of my life by a positive and fulfilling environment that offered the time, resources and inspiration to follow my creative passion. I've often joked about "life doing what the fuck it wants." This year she decided to take me up on my implied offer. Sudden and unexpected changes have shattered my (naive) illusion of safety and undermined my overarching optimism at one fell swoop.
During this time I've mostly used creativity as escapism. Creating stuff like the Deep and Mysterious set of videos gave me a way to turn my mind from suffering and immerse myself temporarily within a state of positive flow. Although I will continue to use the creative process as a drug when I need to, I've decided to concentrate on creating from within the experience of suffering, rather than from outside the temporary walls I keep constructing around it.