The Guest House

Nine years ago, after my first writing class for cancer patients at Piper Cancer Center, Chloe inched shyly forward. She wanted to give me a gift. A poem. Rumi wrote,

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

I was moved by the idea of the gift, and before COVID, I hugged students, and I am certain I hugged sweet Chloe. But when I read the poem later, I stuffed it in my jacket pocket. Something about the words irritated me. Then I forgot about it.

Ten years ago in the same building, I had waited for an unwanted guest. I shivered as the door of the box-like office swung open. A chalk-white radiologist strode in and motioned me to sit back. It seemed as if we were trapped in a black-and-white 16mm film of my life, a scary, surreal film — the kind of strange avant–garde ones Andy Warhol used to make in the ‘60s. There was no sound but the ghostly doctor distinctly mouthed the words, You have cancer.   

An hour later I was curled up in the fetal position on the cold tile of my kitchen floor, rocking back and forth and feeling caught in the undertow of my mind. Unprepared. Thoughts swirling out of control. Jolted by surprise, I had joined the 250,000 women in the United States who each year learn they have breast cancer. I did not want this visitor.

The next morning, I drove to Changing Hands Bookstore where I often find solace not only in the space but in the pages of books. On this day I found a bright red journal and even before I went through the line to pay for it, I had scribbled my name in it and dubbed it, My Cancer Journal. These pages would hold my questions, my fears, and my heartfelt memories of test after test, physician after physician, and surgery after surgery in the coming year. In that time, I would see my mother’s scars from losing her breasts. In that time, I would lose both my breasts. In that time, I would cry and struggle to find my way forward. But I did. Cancer changed me, and my writing in the bright red journal was a huge part of this.

Today, as I finished teaching book club to a group of twelve sage women, many of them cancer patients or survivors, I realized it has been almost ten years since my diagnosis. At the end of class, one participant asked to read a poem that had helped her traverse her husband’s death to colon cancer and her own struggle with breast cancer. Vicki closed our class by reading these words,

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

This poem cut deep into my being as it had nine years ago.  Oh, yes, I remembered the pain of these words as I first read them and stuffed them into my pocket. Then I was struggling to open the door to my own cancer. Struggling with an unwanted guest.  I could not welcome and certainly not honor cancer. But now, all these years later, these words were lyrical and beautiful to me. As Vicki read them, I embraced them. For now, I could finally be grateful for my cancer. I could finally understand how it helped me become more of the person I needed to be.

As we all face this pandemic, another unwanted guest, I am trying to relearn the lesson Rumi’s poem held for me. I hope you will join me in allowing ourselves to sit with this difficult experience. Learn to accept it. Most of all, let us find a way to learn and grow from these unexpected challenges.

Seeking Calm

Words have always calmed me. It is why I sit here writing. As I write with rain tapping on my sunroof, these words of Langston Hughes come to me–

“Let the rain kiss you.

Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.

Let the rain sing you a lullaby.”

I opened the patio door so I could hear the rain hit the pavement. Not only does writing calm me, so does the staccato sound of the raindrops torpedoing the patio tiles and splashing. I recall being a child and discovering that my bright red galoshes were perfect for splashing in the rain puddles and walking along ditches where I could dig for crawdads who fled the drains during a downpour. One of my favorite photos is a two-year-old me dancing in the rain. Although it is black and white, I vividly remember the red galoshes and red and white polka dot umbrella. In the photo the umbrella is tossed aside on the ground, and I am reaching up to the sky with joy as I dance in the rain.

Oh, there were years when I grew weary of rain. Especially when I lived in a coal-mining village in England as a child. I would shiver as the rain blew in my 3A classroom window and landed on my carefully inked essays, smudging them. Later when I first taught high school in Indiana, I had to drive thirty miles in frequent thunderstorms and snowstorms to my first teaching job. One night as I drove home in the dark of winter, and my Chevy II slid across the ice into a snowbank, I decided I would leave rain and snow country. Forever.

Ironically when I moved to the desert, I quickly came to see rain as the possibility of hope, new beginnings, and of course, rainbows. Like the tears a young child cries to wash away the pain of a scraped knee, the rain washes away the scorched pain of the desert. Slowly I have learned this. Slowly I have come to love the sounds, the smells, and the art the rain paints on the surface of the arid earth.

Last week as I drove to Sedona for a small event, I marveled at the fields filled with six-foot-tall wild sunflowers and yellow poppies growing in the highway medians and across the hills and valleys.  It was still August, but it was cool, and I rolled my windows down to breathe in the earthy smell of the creosote plants. Just this fragrance fills me with complete calm.

Late that night I sat outside on the patio of a dear friend talking about her move from Phoenix to the red rock canyons. Errant raindrops were falling around us. “It was an easy change,” Linda explained. “I didn’t realize that being around nature would give me more energy, but it does. It literally calms me down.” I understood.

When I said I was still learning how to listen to nature, especially the rain, Linda laughed and said, “This gentle rain reminds me of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.” Within minutes the wind began to bang the wooden gate to the yard and whistled violently through the junipers. “Perhaps now we are enjoying Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” I chided.

Then for a long time we sat in wonder, watching and listening as the storm performed its magical dance around us. As the thunder clapped like cymbals, the lightning set the night canyon aglow, illuminating the reds and oranges of Cathedral Rock in split second flashes. It was as stunning as any painting I have ever seen by Chagall or Matisse.

To write. To dance in the rain like a child. To breathe in the fresh air deeply. To spend time with a friend. To be one with a nature and rain–and to be fully present in these moments. To really see them, calms me. In these times, I will try to embrace more of these moments—and I will wish the same for you.

Unexpected Kindness

In 1982 writer Anne Herbert scrawled a few words on a placemat in a Sausalito, California restaurant. “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Eventually her words set off a chain reaction of kindness. Just this morning the guy in front of me at the Wildflower café bought my coffee. I could not stop thinking how thoughtful this was as I headed back to my study to dig through my old files.

Today I awoke on a mission. I want to find my words. I am trying to thread together pieces that might form my next book. I have had a couple of false starts. It is a long and tedious task. Sometimes I feel like I am scaling Mount Everest, but if I get it right, my current scrawls will become a book. Writing helps me find meaning. Find wholeness. Explore my unique voice. Learn. The work gives me purpose, and I know I am driven to do it for others—not simply me. But I am unclear why I must tirelessly tunnel through mounds of old papers to do it .

Maybe I need to control the space around me? Maybe I need a sense of order?  But I realize that I simply need space to hold my new ideas when I am not tinkering with them or shuffling them into a different pattern or plan. I need a home for this creation as it evolves.

When I open the top drawer of my file cabinet, I find stacks of old tax papers that show how little money a writer can accrue in whole years. The first file drawer empties with ease as I stuff this papery mass into a plastic garbage bag that becomes so stretched it begins to split.

In the second drawer I discover the draft of an adolescent novel that I had titled Outcast. It is the story of a boy in high school trying to find himself while struggling with his obsessive-compulsive disorder. My friend Margot had quilted a potholder to celebrate the birth of this book. It frames all things writerly—paperclips, manuscripts, coffee cups, pens, and a huge sign that holds my mantra, “YOU CAN” —for she believed in the book even before I did. While my son would talk me out of publishing it because he feared it was his story, I would publish a truncated version of it later.  I hug the trivet to my heart knowing it is another kindness. I will put it to use in my kitchen!

In the bottom drawer I find two oil paintings that I had planned to hang. When the pandemic hit, my neighbor Candy could no longer volunteer to care and rock the babies in the nearby hospital’s NICU, and she decided to learn to paint.  Then a small tissue wrapped oil-painting of a green and pink-bellied hummingbird showed up at my doorstep.  After my mother’s death, I had told Candy that a hummingbird often seems to pause at my window where I write. In the note accompanying her painting, Candy  wrote, “Many believe when a hummingbird visits, it is a visit from a loved one who has passed.” The painting is small and delicate. Like the bird who visits me. I position it on my windowsill overlooking my garden because I will be able to see at least one hummingbird each morning.

But all the while I kept thinking of one word.: Kindness. One study from Emory University shows us that when you are kind to others, you raise the level of feel-good hormones created in your brain. In other words when you act altruistically toward others, you are rewarded with what is called a “helper’s high.”

Perhaps even more important is that when others are kind to us, we will be inspired to do kindnesses, too.  There seems to be a ripple effect that comes with kindness. That is why Anne Herbert’s beautiful words scribbled on a napkin have echoed back to us through the years. This is why after I received the hummingbird painting, I gave my neighbor a copy of my book, The Story You Need to Tell. To reciprocate.

Weeks later I found a larger painting wrapped in tissue in a box by my front door. I unwrapped it to discover another oil painting. Etched on the canvas was a small vase with bright colored roses made vivid with shadowing and positioned on a nightstand by Candy’s bed. Beneath the flowers, my friend had carefully painted a stack of three books– Notes to Myself by Hugh Prather, Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, and The Story You Need to Tell.  For my friend to read my book was a kindness, but to honor it in her work was truly moving for me.

As I finished shoving old notes from books-past into garbage bags and hauling them outside to the recycle bin, I paused for a break and in that moment, it hit me that I find writing a book is a long, hard endeavor. Like climbing that mountain or competing in the Olympics. But I will go back to my study because there are moments of powerful insight and revelation and moments of what I have come to know as the miracles of words. When Anne Herbert wrote “practice random acts of kindness” she experienced this. Her words have echoed through the decades and danced through my mind yet again this morning and as I write this blog.

In the end what matters more than waving the older lady with very few groceries ahead of you in the grocery line or taking dinner to a friend who has lost a loved one or simply helping a child retrieve a lost toy tossed from a highchair at a restaurant?  Today and every day I am going to work a little harder to appreciate the moments of unexpected kindnesses–a cup of coffee, a handmade potholder, or heartfelt oil paintings. Those wonderful moments come ripe with encouragement. With hope. With friendship. With joy—and with the gratitude that is now spilling onto this page. Let’s continue to surprise each other with unexpected kindnesses. It makes all the difference.