On Thanksgiving Day, 2020

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I am getting first-hand experience in how difficult it is to separate from this world.  I’ve been given warning that my end is nigh.  Armed with foreknowledge one would think my remaining days and hours would naturally be inclined towards preparation, as for an anticipated trip to a distant land.  But the opposite appears to be true.

My first awareness of the paradox of separation (i.e. planning ahead while dragging my feet) was when I noticed how glued I had been to the television during the recent American presidential elections.  I was unable to tear myself from the results slowly revealed, county by county and state by state, as they were calculated and announced on TV.  I’m pretty sure I won’t survive to the mid-term elections.  I’m very confident that the elections are of no consequence whatsoever in the life beyond.  Why on earth should the elections hold any interest for me, facing a far more important event as I am?  

I can’t explain it, though there may be a hint about why it appeared so important to me.  It surfaced in my feeling of relief at the end of the election.  After the apparent results were announced I could anticipate that my family would not have to suffer four years of the dark and downcast tenor of the times.  There seemed to appear a new opportunity to confront and address the weaknesses exposed in our society by multiple simultaneous crises.  The results of the election left me feeling I could board the transport to the life beyond.  I felt comforted even though my optimism might be self-induced.  

Nonetheless, were I given the liberty of postponing my trip, I would support positive change any way I could… in my society and in myself.  Positive change is for the common good.  It conforms to a Teilhardian optimism and vision about creation.  It provides an environment (both challenging and safe) in which my offspring (and theirs) can grow.  These matters continue to be on my mind as I pack and ready myself to depart.

My lingering feeling of responsibility for the future of the people whom I love is reflected in a completely different domain (and one, quite unanticipated by me).

Over the course of my working career I have delighted in amassing an extensive library of printed books.  My son, Stefan—contemplating the fact that there is scarcely a room in our home without a bookcase (and some rooms where laden bookshelves are the predominant furnishing)—once asked me if I’d actually read each of the books in my collection.  The answer is, assuredly, “no”.  Yet, I “know” each of my books, and can typically find the one I am looking for in the jumbled geography of our shelving.

This one is a reliable reference; that one, broke new ground; over there, is one that recalls pleasurable memories; so many others are important for what their authors taught me; some, for the sheer comfort of holding a well-crafted and beautiful volume; a few, for their historical relevance.

I recognized the need to dispose of the bulk of my collection before I go.  It’s a reasonable expectation that I do so lest my library become a burden to my family.  Curiously, I owe it to the books, too.  What makes my collection of books cohesive is my own interest, use, and long association with them.  Having served me so well, the books have a kind of claim on me, that I will find for each a welcoming new home before I leave.  

I’m sending some to augment existing library collections.  Others are destined to be returned to the marketplace of used books, where a different owner can discover an unexpected “treasure” or expose themselves to a new perspective.  Some subject-specific groups of titles I’ll try to place as a unit, since they already have been accustomed to “being” together.  It is important to treat with respect what has been meaningful in my life.

Preparing books for shipping and disposition has occassioned a more difficult parting than I expected.  This is how I recently described it to a dear friend:

It’s slow-go because each of the books has its own draw and memory.  Some, I enjoyed and would like to read again; others, I grappled with and quarreled over; others I admired for an author’s style or their ability to be precise and clear. Others still, I remember because of experimentation or manufacturing challenges.  In other words, I find many excuses to pause and flip through pages before depositing a volume into a box for transport.  It is as if special books require specific good-bye’s before being sent on their way.  Each departing book leaves a little vacancy in my life.  Who would have anticipated this emotional and psychological attachment?

I ran across some exceptional books, wrapped in protective brown kraft paper.  These brought back, all unbidden, images of me with my legs stretched out in front of me on the chesterfield cuddled tightly against my mother as she read to me.  It was she who started me on my lifelong appreciation of books; and she who introduced me to the limitless pleasures of the mind and imagination that books contain.

It seems to me entirely appropriate, as I start my packing for my long trip to come, that I foster a state of thanksgiving, gratitude and concern for those whom I love… and even care about things I appreciated and enjoyed in my lifetime.  These are qualities I’d be wise, would I not, to bring on my forthcoming trip?

What I Have Learned This Week From Anastasia

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Let me introduce you to my eldest daughter, Anastasia.  When she was still a child she was diagnosed as having a congenital disease called tuberous sclerosis.  The diagnosis was slow in coming because her disease is quite rare and today’s medical diagnostic tools had not yet been invented.  It was a difficult time for our family.

Anastasia suffered seizures, mainly petite mal, which she gradually learned to shrug off.  Some were grand mal which galvanized her brother Michał and us, her parents, into action.  Grand mal seizures were life-threatening from falls, choking or the wrong kind of restraint.  Not knowing when to expect such episodes left the family continually on-edge.  Not knowing how best to help our daughter made her parents feel helpless.  There seemed no place nor anyone to turn to, so little was known about the disease and so varied were the ways the disease could express itself.  The doctors needed time and we needed immediacy.

Tuberous sclerosis, it is claimed, is often accompanied by cognitive disability.  This appeared to be the case with Anastasia.  Subsequently, an MRI scan revealed that Anastasia lacked an important structure in her brain.  It is called a corpus callosum.  You may recall that when his brain was autopsied, Albert Einstein was found to have had an oversized corpus callosum.  The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerve structures that connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  Albert Einstein had a superhighway connecting the two halves of his brain. We non-Einstein-caliber folk might be more than happy with a few two-lane highways.  Anastasia lacked even a dirt road.  

What this means to me in retrospect is that for much of her young developmental years, Anastasia needed to create and grow her own neural network where one did not exist. It was imperative that the two hemispheres of her brain learned to work together instead of operating as two separate brains vying for dominance.  Just imagine what challenges Anastasia faced. Slow physical growth, mental exploration from one or the other side of her brain, willpower, persistence, selecting something that seemed to work. Testing it. Choosing it or rejecting it. Simultaneously trying something else. Slowly creating a working pathway. Reinforcing it. Moving on to a different pathway.  To me, what Anastasia accomplished, necessarily alone and by herself, approaches Olympic achievement rather than represents cognitive disability. The final result is a series of compromises that we may call a cognitive disability but it is because we don’t have a vocabulary sufficiently discriminating to applaud her extraordinary formative effort and achievement.

Some doctors advised us not to expect Anastasia to live past her teens.  Last week she celebrated her 52nd birthday.  For the past 35 years she has lived in a group home within the amazing community of over 100 disabled persons and their caring and creative caregivers called Cedars of Marin.  As a resident, Anastasia participates in an annual “Individual Support Plan”.  This year her ISP was conducted via Zoom.  Following are a few of the things I learned.

Start on an encouraging positive note when talking about goals.

Anastasia has had a great year and is looking forward to an even better year in 2021. She is in a relationship with Gil and this continues to make her happier and gives her companionship. She and Gil continue to do many activities together that include cleaning, laundry, and helping other residents. She is adjusting to some scheduling changes with the current shelter-in-place directives. Anastasia is a great help to the staff every day.

If you volunteer you can often be assigned the jobs you like.

Living in a group home means sharing chores.  Anastasia took to some, including rolling the several recycling and garbage bins down the long driveway to the street curb for pickup by the municipal services.  She is strong, appreciates tidiness, and is happy about the home’s efforts to recycle.  She took the initiative to help get the barrels out for pickup and now happily handles, by herself, the weekly chore.

Goal – Anastasia will continue doing chores she enjoys which include emptying trash receptacles, helping with dishes, moving bins to the road, and helping with the laundry.

Do For Others When They Can’t. 

Each of the residents is assigned a regular day each week for access to the community clothes washing machines and laundry supplies.  It is their responsibility not only to wash their own clothes, but to keep the laundry area clean and tidy.  Some of the residents find this more challenging than others.  

When Anastasia observed one of her housemates having difficulty, she offered to help.  This was much appreciated by all, and was a far better solution than just complaining.

Express your frustrations appropriately.

At the same time, there are situations that arise between people who live under the same roof that aren’t so easily solved.  In those situations there are peaceful ways to articulate and use your words to express what is bothering you.  It is one of Anastasia’s goals for next year to improve this skill.  Otherwise, what (or who) may be bothering Anastasia, festers inside her.  The offending person has no opportunity to improve his/her conduct.  Instead of a reconciling conversation, conflict can arise.  It is far better to express one’s frustrations early and appropriately, than it is to let them fester and grow toxic.

Goal – Anastasia will seek staff support in managing her emotions.
Benchmark – Anastasia will continue to  demonstrate the ability to seek staff support to improve communication with her peers without anyone getting their feelings hurt. Again, this year she has greatly improved with this skill.

Nutrition.

This comes up regularly on Anastasia’s annual ISP’s but it is a goal she finds worth concentrating on.  

Goal – Anastasia would like to continue to lose weight and exercise more.
Benchmark – Anastasia will discuss healthy eating habits with Cedars Staff and Family Members including portion size and food choices.
Benchmark – Anastasia will continue to walk at least 3x a week.

Always seek opportunities to expand and improve your skills.

Anastasia is a Master Weaver. Yet she has high standards for herself. She works with Staff and constantly seeks ways to improve her skills.

Goal – Anastasia would like to attend a weaving support group and a yoga class on Zoom.
Benchmark – Anastasia will continue to participate in weaving and yoga classes.

__________
I have sometimes wondered upon what metrics will St. Peter determine to open the “pearly gates” when Anastasia, at the appropriate time, appears before him.  At first glance, it seems she has been unfairly disadvantaged. If so, it raises issues of God’s fairness and complicates how any life can be fairly considered. It makes one wonder if the example of the Saints pertain to us. Perhaps we, too, have disabilities that can excuse us for our failings.

I’ve concluded, however, that mercy must be evenly available and justice requires we will be evaluated on the basis of the same criteria.  Otherwise the virtues are nothing more than adjectives, arbitrarily applied to random lives, meaning nothing to our personal goals and aspirations.

We’ve each been given extraordinary unique gifts; gifts the world needs and depends upon, if only we are generous enough to develop and share them freely. We each have our share of corresponding weaknesses and disabilities that make us susceptible to being fearful, self-centered, angry, defensive or otherwise tempted by selfishness.  It is always our decision whom we choose to become, whether our physical bodies or cognitive abilities are more similar to Anastasia’s or to Albert Einstein’s. It’s no easier for either of them… or us to choose a path of admirable living. Nor is it any more difficult.

 Chet has adjusted to the changes in the evolution of his cancer this year.  But there are several ways in which he needs to improve… [See above for guidance.]

Death and Dying

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Earlier this year, Alison and Stefan gave me a gift subscription to an online service called StoryWorth.  I receive a question once a week and am invited to answer it.  At some point in the future, StoryWorth’s algorithms will assemble my answers into a book.  The intention is that my grandchildren will have an autobiographical story book by which to know me better.  

After our October 20 consultation with our oncologist, I wrote the following chapter on Death and Dying.  It contains nothing new.  After all, people have been pondering and writing about death and dying almost since the dawn of writing.  It is a theme traceable in the story of Gilgamesh.  But the essay consolidates several consistent threads in what I hope is a useful way, even for readers of these blog posts.

My grandchildren know me as “Dziadzio” (Polish, for “Grandfather”), except for Theo, who has personalized it by his endearing “Dziadz”.  That will explain the StoryWorth-like opening question.

What’s it like, “Dziadz”, to know you are dying?

Living in God’s created world we are embraced by Life.  The embrace comes from what we call “Nature.”  Nature is beautiful.  It is—in the correct usage of the word—awesome.  The first way we get to know about Nature is through our observation and experience of it.  We can also study it.  Learning what we can about life and death, we learn that dying is a necessary part of living.  

We call things that are living, sentient.  All sentient life on Earth proceeds through a predictable pattern: birth, development, nourishment and growth.  Following that are periods focused on reproduction and maturity.  Then sentient beings go into decline and eventually die.  This pattern is the same for Mayflies that live for only 24-hours, tortoises and some whales who live over a hundred years, and for trees that can live thousands of years.  The same for all sentient beings.

One way scientists describe this pattern is by having analyzed the components that constitute life.  What are the materials of life and how do they all work together?  Scientists who have become knowledgeable in different fields are comparing notes.  They are biologists, chemists, physicists, agronomists, nutritionists; people who have studied sentient life from many different perspectives.  They have learned that when we die, every bit of the material from which we are made is broken down and returned to the Earth.  There, those elements are recycled and again made available to Nature.  The selfsame ingredients that we are made of can be reconstituted into other forms of sentient life.  Life on Earth, scientists explain, depends upon the recycling of the ingredients from which we are made.  Some people call this “conservation of Nature.”  Other people simply observe that Life depends on Death.

From this perspective my approaching death is simply expected by Nature.  It is built-in as part of God’s plan whether or not we completely understand God’s plan.

__________

Elsewhere I’ve written about what I’ve learned about the “cycle of reciprocity”.  The cycle of reciprocity is a recurring cycle in what is called “the gift economy.”  It is based on the realization that all sentient life depends upon nutrients, shelter, and unique elements provided freely by God’s natural environment.  Sentient beings survive because of the surrounding environment that is freely given them.  Because these life-giving and life-sustaining gifts are freely given and received, sentient beings are obligated, by justice, to give back (to reciprocate) by giving their unique gifts to the needs of the world.  Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the cycle of reciprocity better than I ever could do.  I’ve quoted an extensive part of one of her essays in a footnote.1  Don’t think that since her words are in a footnote, they’re not worth reading.  They are.

It is all too possible for us humans to be selfish and greedy and to take more than our share… of food, of water, of medicines, even of the very air we breathe.  But it is also possible for us to be creative, inventive, and protective of the Earth’s resources.  We can contribute our own special gifts to the study of God’s bounty.  We are continually understanding more about the unique nature of every form of sentient life.  God has given sentient life an important role in the health of the Earth.  God has given each of us a unique role, too.

We have the capacity to honor the life God has created for us to share.  We can contribute what no other sentient life can contribute to life’s flourishing.  Just as we benefit from what is given us from Nature.  That’s our obligation in the cycle of reciprocity… to give of our uniqueness; to help fulfill God’s plan on this Earth.  We have a finite lifetime within which to do that.  

My death is the terminus of my finite lifetime.  But I have tried to discover and live out my role as best I can.

_________

Human beings are more than only the materials from which they are put together.  This is a mystery humans have pondered throughout history.  In addition to our physical, corporeal selves, we also have consciousness, self-awareness, empathy, judgement, conscience, morality, will.  Scientists have attempted to explain these qualities as functions of chemistry, social dynamics, and the interaction of materials of which we are made.  But it has proven to be an insurmountable task.

We have a spiritual life that animates our virtues (and our vices).  We have an awareness of our Creator and our relationship to God.  We have unique personalities.  We are individually more or less successful in knowing who we are and understanding why we are here.  And our Will is more or less successful in honoring Life.  People have named this bundle of more-than-material characteristics, a soul.

The soul is a profound mystery of life.  Scientists cannot explain it.  The spiritual dimension is revealed by priests, shamans, and medicine women.  Some people claim that as materialism has dominated scientific studies, we’ve lost the capacity to recognize and care for the spiritual in our lives.  They suggest that indigenous peoples or spiritual leaders not so tainted by materialism are more sensitive to their souls.  Our Church has recognized many important spiritual teachers to help us develop our spiritual lives.  These women and men are called Saints.  Their teachings and their lives are helpful models for our lives.

One of the startling things about our souls is that even the humblest of human beings can appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.  We can experience awe in the complexity of Life simply by enjoying it with awareness.  We can wonder at the grandeur of the skies.  We can be surprised by our own capacity to study, understand and to know.  We can be moved by loving relationships.  And we can get into the habit, as often as we can, to pause and say “Thank You, God.”  That’s all it takes to start an ongoing conversation with God.  You can respond to God’s fathomless Creation with gratitude and love.

This second, mysterious, spiritual perspective tells us that Life is an embodiment of Love.   We participate collectively and individually in something God created.  We are integral to all Life.  Life depends on us just as we depend on it.  Finding our particular path is one of our tasks on Earth.  The process is exhilarating, exciting and makes us want to sing. 

For better or worse, we have but a lifetime to experience Life on this Earth.  But there’s a promise that the end of this life will not mean the end of us, but a transformation of “us” into some next step, bringing us closer and in more harmony with God our Creator.  Christ, himself, assured us that God the Father has prepared a “heavenly home” for us.  But we don’t know any specifics.  

We only know it will be good, because we’ve recognized goodness and love through our lives on Earth.

__________

Why, then, is death so traumatic, especially for human beings?  Here we begin to dig deeper in our questions about death.  Really, the question is answered by considering our lives rather than be distracted by death.

Something unknown is often scary.  
— Death, especially as regards our own death, is an unknown.

Sometimes death involves pain.
— Pain is definitely frightening to me.

But death is seldom an experience people undergo alone.  Even if death comes to us when we are alone, physically, we are not alone spiritually.  This is part of the material / spiritual understanding.  We can be physically alone when we die, but God is always present.  The Saints from whom we may have received guidance or inspiration will be with us.  All our lives we have created bonds with our families and friends.  We preserve memories of people who have been important in our lives; whom we have loved and who have loved us.  They will always be a part of who we are, even at the moment of our death.  

We retain hurts, too; things that we’ve promised, but have left undone.  We may have hurt someone to whom we have not made sufficient reparation for the hurt, conscious or un-.  We might have unresolved issues; things we haven’t talked about, or misunderstood, or simply feel uncomfortable about.  All these come into sharper focus as we approach a moment in time after which there is no further opportunity to settle unresolved or out of balance relationships.  Time running out is frightening.

What we carry with us at the moment of our death makes us want to have lived our lives in a way that was always honorable and loving.  Thinking about death, as we are here, makes us desire to approach death free of the chains of regret and full of joyful memories and experiences.  At the point of death, there’s little possibility to do things over.  That may be a part of why we fear death.  Even if, on balance, we think we’ve been “more good than bad”, our failings seem more clear to us.  They certainly do to me.  Paradoxically, I think this feeling of regret is part of the curriculum of my growth during this life.  

Thinking ahead to my death spurs me both to pray, “Thank You, God.” And also to pray, “I am sorry for the pains I may have caused.  I am sorry for the things I have not done.  Please forgive me.”  

I am glad to have a merciful Father awaiting me after this death.

__________

We are empathetic beings.  We can imagine how sad will be the people whom we love when we are no longer here.  Just imagine if you were not here, how sad would be your Mom.  How she would cry.  If some people have come to rely on us for physical or spiritual support, we can imagine how much more difficult or lonely their life is likely to be with us gone.  Our empathy makes us sad.

Similarly, we can empathize with the dying person.  We may wish to relieve the burden of the person dying. This is a natural instinct built into us over a lifetime.  We want to help those in pain, or in fear, or in trauma.  I don’t think it is entirely possible.  Yet being with someone dying is truly a gift both to the person dying, and a gift to the persons attending a death.  

Curiously, such are the real bonds between people, that physical presence is incidental.

__________

When my Dad died, I was enjoying a picnic.  We didn’t have cell phones at the time.  It took some hours before someone found me to tell me my Tata had died.  I immediately felt guilty that I’d been enjoying the sunshine and the trees and the grass of the park while my Tata had been experiencing death in his workshop. I felt terrible that Mama had been experiencing her grief alone.

I was able to go to the City Morgue where they had brought my Dad’s body.  I was able to sit with him, alone, and hold his hand. I prayed for him, for the mystery that he was entering into.  I prayed in thanksgiving for what he had been to me.  I thanked him.  I thanked God that, of all the fathers I could have had, God gave me the perfect one.

Having, maybe, learned from that sudden and unexpected death of my Father, I adopted a different habit with my Mom.  You can start making this your habit, too.

Years before Mama died, when we celebrated a family event, or when I shared lunch with her, just the two of us; when it was over and we were about to depart, the habit fell into place.  I would pause to mentally consider that this might be the last time I ever saw Mama alive.  I didn’t want the last time to be sitting next to her body on a bier.  So I would imprint on my mind the impression of Mama at just that good moment, thinking it could possibly be the last time I saw her alive.

When we were on holiday in England, just having arrived in the City of Bath, we received an urgent call from Wandzia and Marsha to tell us Mama had died.  Bath was a long way away from home.  But I didn’t feel guilty being on vacation.  I remembered Mama as I’d last seen her.  I was able to send my thoughts and prayers from England.  After all, what difference did it make to a loving God, or to a lifelong loving Mama, from whence my prayers were lifting?

__________

There’s another consideration about my death that merits exploring, even though—particularly because of the coronavirus pandemic—I can’t predict how my funeral will actually turn out.

The momentous events in our lives are few.  One is being born, as a physical fact of creation.  Another is receiving the Sacraments, as tangible evidence of entry into the spiritual dimension of our lives.  A third is graduation, as confirming our step-by-step mastery of the life of the mind.  Yet another is marriage, signifying not only independence, but trust in a partner with whom to better confront the questions of life.  It could be a comitment to a particular life, as in people who decide to join a religious order or enter the monastic life.  Each of these momentous events are celebrated, liturgically, by our Church.  Our Catholic Church is, itself, an earthly embodiment of the Heaven that awaits us after Death. 

As a faith community, our parish of St. Mary Magdalen is one in which I have prayed together with other parishioners.  We have cheered one another, seen our families and children grow, shared pains, studied together, sang songs of praise together, and learned to love together.  We’ve celebrated our share of funerals together, too.  

The best of all these events have two constant components.  

The first is the contextualization provided by the Church’s liturgies and Sacraments.  They remind us that our earthly experiences have meaning because of our spiritual dimension.  We can be tricked into thinking that ourlives and or our needs or our feelings are central.  They are not.  God’s plan for Creation is central.  Our role, important as it may be to us, is secondary.  The Church’s ministries keep us from a dangerous self-aggrandizement. 

The second component is our community experience.  Parishioners help one another discover and recognize each person’s proper role in relation to God’s plan through sharing.  To have a member of a community die is for the community to sustain a loss.  Just as in a family, the community’s loss needs to be acknowledged, mourned and celebrated.  Death is not only in the “natural order of things” but it is part of God’s plan for creation, carrying with it the promise of a life to come and the family and the community deserves to experience that truth in its fullness.  I am reminded of the words from Ecclesiastics as interpreted in Pete Seeger’s song, To Everything There Is a Time:

To every thing there is a season,
— and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
— a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
— a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
— a time to mourn, and a time to dance; …..

The coronavirus we are experiencing, makes gatherings dangerous in our Mission-style Church.  People are correctly cautious about traveling.  We know of all too many people who have died from the virus trapped in the isolation of their makeshift Covid ICU bed.  So the question is “In the time of a pandemic, how does a community acknowledge and mourn the passing of one of its long-time members?”

The answer may be that the funeral take place outside, where mourners can observe safe social distancing.  Outside funerals can be situated in our parish’s “Dominican Garden” or at the gravesite at Gate of Heaven cemetery where my Mama and Tata lie.  Technology allows us to stream the proceedings for those who may live too far away to be present for the funeral here.  Our Polish family and friends can be invited to participate through technology.  

The reception may have to be postponed until a time when we have more control over possible infection from the coronavirus.  Nothing requires a celebration of life to be coincident with the passing of that life.

What is important, I think, is for a community to eventually have space and occasion in which to mingle and to talk; to reminisce and to tell stories; to laugh as well as to cry.  Endowed as we have been, with an elaborate emotional sensibility, we should employ those emotions (combined with our intellects and our spiritual insights) to properly place into context that our Deaths ultimately bring us Life in manifold ways.

_______________

From Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, ISBN-10 : 1571313567, ISBN-13 : 978-1571313560

In Potowatomi, the strawberry is ode min, the heart berry.  We recognize them as the leaders of the berries, the first to bear fruit.

     Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet.  A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning.  It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it.  And yet it appears.  Your only role is to be open-eyed and present.  Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery—as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source.

     Those fields of my childhood showered us with strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, hickory nuts in the fall, bouquets of wildflowers brought to my Mom, and family walks on Sunday afternoon. They were our playground, retreat, wildlife sanctuary, ecology classroom, and the place where we learned to shoot tin cans off the stone wall.  All for free.  Or so I thought.

     I experienced the world in that time as a gift economy, “goods and services” not purchased but received as gifts from the earth.  Of course, I was blissfully unaware of how my parents must have struggled to make ends meet in the wage economy raging far from this field.

     In our family, the presents we gave one another were almost always homemade.  I thought that was the definition of a gift: something you made for someone else.  We made all our Christmas gifts: piggy banks from old Clorox bottles, hot pads from broken clothes pins, and puppets from retired socks.  My mother says it was because we had no money for store-bought presents.  It didn’t seem like a hardship to me; it was something special. 

     My father loves wild strawberries, so for Father’s Day my mother would almost always make him strawberry shortcake.  She baked the crusty shortcakes and whipped the heavy cream, but we kids were responsible for the berries.  We each got an old jar or two and spent the Saturday before the celebration out in the fields, taking forever to fill them as more and more berries ended up in our mouths.  Finally, we returned home and poured them out on the kitchen table to sort out the bugs.  I’m sure we missed some, but Dad never mentioned the extra protein.

     In fact, he thought wild strawberry shortcake was the best possible present, or so he had us convinced.  It was a gift that could never be bought.  As children raised by strawberries, we were probably unaware that the gift of berries was from the fields themselves, not from us. Our gift was time and attention and care and red-stained fingers. Heart berries, indeed. 

     Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. The field gave to us, we gave to my Dad, and we tried to give back to the strawberries.  When the berry season was done, the plants would send out slender red runners to make new plants.  Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out a little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down.  Sure enough, tiny little roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season they were even more plants, ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon.  No person taught us this—the strawberries showed us.  Because they had given us a gift, and ongoing relationship open between us.

      Farmers around us grew a lot of strawberries and frequently hired kids to pick for them.  My siblings and I would ride our bikes a long way to Crandall’s Farm to pick berries to earn spending money.  A dime for every quart we picked.  But Mrs. Crandall was a persnickety overseer.  She stood at the edge of the field in her bib apron and instructed us how to pick and warned us not to crush any berries.  She had other rules, too. “These berries belong to me,” she said, “not to you.  I don’t want to see you kids eating my berries.”  I knew the difference: in the field behind my house the berries belonged to themselves.  At this lady’s roadside stand, she sold them for sixty cents a quart. 

     It was quite a lesson in economics.  We’d have to spend most of our wages if we wanted to ride home with berries in our bike baskets.  Of course those berries were ten times bigger than our wild ones, but not nearly so good.  I don’t believe we ever put those farm berries in Dad’s shortcake.  It wouldn’t have felt right.

     It’s funny how the nature of an object—let’s say a strawberry or a pair of socks—is so changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity.  The pair of wool socks that I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy.  I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine.  I hope so.  But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property.  There is no bond beyond the politely exchanged “thank yous” with the clerk.  I have paid for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money.  The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange.  They become my property.  I don’t write a thank you note to JCPenney. 

     But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift?  That changes everything.  That gift creates ongoing relationship.  I will write a thank-you note.  I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious grandchild I will wear them when she visits even if I don’t like them.  When it’s her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return.  As the scholar and writer Lewis Hyde notes, “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.” 

     Wild strawberries fit the definition of a gift, but grocery store berries do not.  It’s the relationship between producer and consumer that changes everything.  As a gift-thinker, I would be deeply affected if I saw a wild strawberries in the grocery store.   I would want to kidnap them all.  They were not meant to be sold, only to be given.  Hyde reminds us that in a gift economy, one’s freely given gifts cannot be made into someone else’s capital.  I can see the headline now: “Woman Arrested for Shoplifting Produce.  Strawberry Liberation Front Claims Responsibility.”

Over the hill the end is in sight

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All has been swimming along quite well, until it stopped.  On October 20, 2020, on the basis of a consultation with our oncologist, I sent the following note to my family and children.  Just for convenience, I’m posting it here for readers of my cancerblog. I expect this may mean more postings from me.  It appears easier to write about challenges than about “swimming along”.

“Mom and I have been busy, busy, busy over here, video conferencing with our General Practitioner, Oncologist, Pulmonary Doctor (with add-ins from Palliative Care, Radiology, our Pastor), etc.

To summarize:

Chemo:  I have, over these last nine years, blown through all the existing accepted chemotherapeutic protocols to combat my cancer.  There are no more medications that can be offered.

Clinical Trials:  There seem to be three Clinical Trials either in startup stages, or seeking qualified candidates.  All happen to be at UCSF.  We’re putting our name on the “waiting list” to get more information.  We’ll see whether any are a good match; whether their likely results are worth the cost of experimentation.

Pulmonary Options:  The Pulmonary Doctors specialize in Lung Health.  They’ve evaluated my CT Scans and know about my coughing.  

There are two types of bronchoscopy available to us.   Neither of these are urgent, but are available on an “as needed” basis.

Palliative Care: The “short” of it is that we can now expect the cancer to continue encroaching on my lungs and making it increasingly difficult for me to breathe.  That’s where Palliative Care comes in.  They have a number of possible “interventions” to help me breathe when I have difficulty.  They can administer such care in the hospital or at home.

Death:  Whenever THAT time comes, we WERE prepared to have a Polish Wake and Funeral Liturgy “with a cast of thousands”.  Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, that won’t be possible.  No party for some time.  

Timeline:  Typically after stopping chemo, patients have around 6 months.  But—as our oncologist pointed out—I’ve consistently outlasted the statistical expectation chart.  We all hope this continues to be the case.

I share this with you because having cancer has given us the opportunity / necessity to plan ahead in this practical way.  People approaching the end of their life without terminal illness often don’t have this opportunity.  They just suddenly die one day; frequently without notice.  

We have notice.  We have a chance to think about the process as well as the end (or, actually, of course, the new beginning).

Dad

Reflections on Time

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I suppose it should come as no surprise that it is easier to complain than it is to observe things going well.  This, then, may be an exception.  Monica and I recently rented a house in Pacific Grove for a week and invited our family to come join us for celebration.  I wrote the following reflections to share at a dinner hosted by my Sister, Wandzia, her husband, Marvin, and their daughter Kasia.

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I want to share with you some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head recently.  Monica and I have been anticipating our birthdays this year.  They seem special this year, somehow; Monica has turned 70 this month, and I will turn 75 the month following. 

  • Reaching 70 years in this life is a respectable amount of time.
  • Reaching 75 is, similarly, respectable.
    • One begins to seriously confront end-of-life issues like filling in Advanced Medical Directives and making sure to be up-to-snuff with one’s God.  
  • Living, side-by-side with Monica for 41 years is a long time.
    •  I’m becoming more aware of her reliably dependable good advice and knowledge, just as she is becoming more comfortable in pointing out my faults… most especially as concerns my health, nutrition and those questionable habits of mine… acting as if I were 30 years younger when, in fact, my body parts (especially joints… but also sight, balance, motor skills, and… and… and…) are showing disturbing signs of creakiness.
  • 41 years for each of us is well past the halfway mark of our lives.
    • We’ve each lived with the other longer than we’ve lived apart.  That constitutes a special quality of “a long time”.
  • I was diagnosed with Stage Four Terminal Cancer on June 7, 2011, eight years ago!  
    • Living eight years past my diagnosis is—by any calculation—an extraordinary length of time.

Thinking about time made me brush up and update information I originally acquired from my high school physics and college philosophy classes.

One startling fact remains unchanged: time—as ubiquitous and ever-present as it is in our every-day lives—plays no role in our scientific understanding of the cosmos.  Apart from being a simple measure of change (a kind of tape measure), science doesn’t need “time” to explain how the universe was created nor what forces make it function. That seems incredible to me, yet it is true.  

The official definition of time by the American Physics Association is
“Time is what the clock says.”

Still, we experience time and can study it in various ways.  

500 A.D. — Boethius famously postulated that human time is different from God’s time.  Boethius asserted that the two times could co-exist, perhaps prefiguring contemporary string theory by several centuries.

1927 — Science has defined what we all know to be true: that time has a direction.  Scientists call that quality “the Arrow of Time.”

1950 — Einstein—writing about human time in this universe (as separate from “God’s time”)—stipulated that no matter where in our universe we might be, sitting here in Carmel Valley or, hypothetically, sitting on the edge of a black hole in an unimaginably distant far-off galaxy, we must experience the passage of time the same way, one second after another.

We also speak of the “end of time” and consider that a marker of considerable importance. The end of time is a point at which the universe, as we know it, ceases to exist. But we also imagine that something continues to exist after the “end of time”; just that our experience in this world ceases.
We each experience time subjectively.  To better illumine our personal experience of time might require the expertise of psychologist or a brain specialists dealing with memory, among other disciplines; also of philosophers and theologians.  Time, though it may not be needed in mathematical formulae is complex in its own right and can only be understood through the insights of many experts from differing approaches. 
Practically speaking, what our subjective experience reveals to us as laypersons is that time seems to be composed of fleeting “slivers of being”.  We can retain past events in our minds and recall those memories, but we can’t go back in any practical sense to re-live previously “completed” events.  The slivers stack up in our memories like cards fill an old-fashioned library card catalog.  The Arrow of Time doesn’t permit going back to experience them over; only to recognize that events happened in some time past.
One CalTech astrophysicist, Sean Carroll* described it this way, “I can make an omelette out of an egg, but I can’t go back and make an egg out of an omelette.”  In using these words he added an important complication to our rumination on time.  The inability to “go back” is not merely an issue of memory, it has physical implications, as well!

If we can’t go backwards, we might try to “go with the flow” in the direction of the Arrow of Time: forward.  Here, though, we are stymied again.  We believe we can anticipate what lies ahead, but our anticipation is seriously constrained by our inability to comprehend the complexity of what influences events in the future. 

I may think, “I’ll make a breakfast omelette for Monica tomorrow.”  
– But as the time approaches, I might find I’ve overslept.  
– I may find the last of the eggs were used the evening before.
– Overnight, an earthquake might have hit and we’ll have forgotten all about breakfast.   
– The doorbell might ring and when we open it the Publisher’s Clearing House representatives might have arrived with the first installment of our randomly-awarded “one-million-dollars-a-week-for-our lifetime”… and we’ll go out for breakfast.
– Monica might awaken and say, “Let’s pack a picnic and have breakfast at the beach.”

Any number of circumstances can and do force us to adjust our plans.  It happens so constantly and reliably that we don’t even notice that we can’t foretell future events save in grossly generalized ways.
What we can conclude is that, as far as time is concerned, our human existence is embedded in the sliver of time (one 3×5 card thick) that is “now”, not “before”, and not “to come.”

Spiritually-wise person’s have described this understanding as “living in the present” or “living mindfully”.  To live mindfully means to be increasingly conscious, every second, of the extraordinary dynamism and complexity that occurs in the sliver of time in which we presently exist… of you being here to celebrate with Monica and me; of my being present at this second with my children and grandchildren; of each of us experiencing at this moment the joy of family and friends, and—on this day, most of all—of my awareness that I share my sliver with Monica, and can experience how much satisfaction, companionship and pleasure she brings to my life.

There is a plaque in this home, just in the other room.  It contains a quotation from Carl Jung and reads, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”  Aware of existing in our ever-fleeting sliver of time, I’d like to call to mind that bidden or unbidden presence of God in our midst. 
We bid ourselves to be conscious of that constant presence in order to give thanks… serious and deliberate gratitude for the countless and undeserved blessings that flow—especially to each of us—as we gather tonight, in Wandzia and Marvin’s warm and welcoming home and anticipate the meal and conversation they set before us. 

Indeed, the table was set with consummate attention to beauty and celebration. Our conversations were lively. The laughter was hearty and heartfelt.  Our food and wine nourishing as well as tasty.  Our gratitude was palpable.  

The question that remains for each of us is:
“How best do I express my gratitude in the sliver of time in which I exist.”

*Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at Caltech where he focuses on theories of cosmology, field theory and gravitation by studying the evolution of the universe. As quoted in Wired Magazine.

Unexpected Similarities

Summary

Occasionally, I feel guilty I am doing as well as I am, thanks to the effectiveness of my chemo treatment.  Some of my fellow patients are not doing as well.  A close friend, diagnosed some months after I was, is already presently being transferred to hospice care.  Another, having gone through a recent multi-hour multi-specialist surgery, is entering an aggressive treatment protocol combining radiation with radical chemotherapy.  A third has declined surgery altogether and is choosing treatment of his cancer through a variety of nutritional and mindful exercises intended to focus his entire physical and psychological strength against the incursion of his disease.

Cancer, I’ve been reading, is a highly personal disease.  Many researchers agree that our cancers become active in response to immune deficiencies, or environmental triggers that are not, even now, well understood.  Some researchers suggest that cancer cells are present, latently, in our bodies from birth.[1]  This makes generalized therapies impossible.

The current spate of distressing news about the widespread clerical abuse in the Catholic Church is similar in this respect.  The abuse of the powerless is a source of guilt far more justified than my quasi-guilt from the positive experience of keeping my cancer at bay.

Detail

As dreadful as it is to think of the hundreds of individual priests, torrentially documented in the press, who perpetrated abuse against others, it is even more shameful to consider the bishops who hid the crimes and avoided accountability for the perpetrators or for themselves.

The facts of the immoral crimes are difficult to consider, much less explain.

Contrary to depictions of the abuse we are finding out about, labeling it as “sexual abuse”, what seems certain is that the violations are acts of aggression; psychologically misguided expressions of power.[2]

Were the perpetrators committing their heinous acts because they possessed power over their victims or because they were (or believed they were), in fact, held in thrall, themselves?  Is there a relationship of their acts of abuse to the rule of celibacy?  If so, what is the nature of that relationship?  How is it normally and abnormally expressed?  When abuses are perpetrated by the very powerful, how can we respond?

How did this aberrant behavior spread?  Did perpetrators communicate with and influence one another?  If so, what were the mechanisms and influences exchanged?  If not, what does it say about the remarkable numbers of individual perpetrators?  What is the underlying source of the horrible anger that is evidenced by the events that have been discovered and recorded?  What are the structural components that are complicit in permitting (or turning a blind eye to) the behaviors we are learning about?   How does gender play a role?  (The recent news in the US media is full of details involving men, whereas the abuses known as the Magdalen Laundry Asylums were conducted, in Ireland, by women.[3])   Does sexual orientation play a role?  If so, what role?

Do psychological signals exist that can be unearthed by early testing, that can predict the possibility of aberrations of such kind?  Were they employed?  With what effect?  What kind of professional advice was given bishops by contemporary doctors, psychologists or lawyers?  How did such advice contribute to permissibility; or was professional advice ignored?  Where and how does peer pressure enter in?  Are there patterns of behavior among priests or bishops that reveal or suggest the likelihood of abuse?

What can/should be done to help victims?  How to explain what happened and why?  Given what we know about historical cultural evidence, are there psychological/cultural influences at play?  How to remediate; if remediation is even possible?

There is a widespread ripple effect of learning about such abuse, from the individuals immediately involved to the wider society that suffers because of the overall degradation of trust and exemplary behavior.  How can we address the scandal to the community of families and persons immediately involved in abuses; to the Catholics only proximate to such crimes; to Christians in general; to the wider secular society who already evidences a distrust of religious instinct?

How do we appropriately respond, on a personal basis, to the revelations that are swirling around us with the result of wide moral and personal distress?

How do we most effectively press for accountability and effective change to eliminate the possibility of ongoing aggressions of a similar nature?  How can we proceed with immediacy at the same time as we defend the need for careful deliberateness?

The revelations of clerical abuse evoke strong personal emotions: feelings of shock, betrayal, disgust, disbelief, shame, anger, empathy, and dismay.  How do we help our local communities (and ourselves) address legitimate emotional and visceral reactions, particularly given that they/we may not have participated or experienced, first-hand, the abuses being written about?

These, and many more penetrating and nuanced interrogations must be articulated, investigated, and analyzed in an open scientific and moral inquiry.  Simultaneously, punishments and calls to account must be meted out to the various complicit individuals.  Meanwhile, as we proceed, we must be careful to protect the privacy and innocence (until proven otherwise) of individuals who might be wrongly accused.

We need to address and answer all these questions for all those personally involved, as well as for all members of society.

 

Some people have been surprised at the statement that the “Devil is behind” these extraordinary events.  Foremost we must recognize a distinction between diverting responsibility to a scapegoat figure.  Responsibilities are due to individual persons not to vaporous fiendish figures.  Whether or not one recognizes or believes in an a personified, individual entity identified as “Satan” or “Beelzebub” is irrelevant.  Though “evil incarnate” might well frighten or disturb, it cannot, itself, incite or unleash some objective evil upon humanity.  The truth is that the Devil can only leverage the vulnerabilities and susceptibilities that preexist in each of us.  The source of Evil in the world is—like it or not—ourselves.  (Recall Pogo’s realization, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”)[4]  The evil that we all possess—much as we would prefer to deny it—are like the cancer cells oncological  researchers suggest might exist in our chemical and biological cells from birth.  Evil is a part of humanity in general, and individual humans in particular.

The existence of personal evil has been recognized at least since the authors of the earliest books of the Bible composed the Cain and Abel narratives.  Latent evil, exploited in damaging ways, is evidenced in the events that are recorded to have taken place in the Garden of Eden.

Spiritual leaders and writers, over time, have recommended practicing self-abnegation, penance, even the employment of physical disciplines (wearing hair-shirts, denying oneself, flagellation, and other “mortifications of the body”.)  These time-honored disciplinary measures are not, to be sure, “solutions”.   No less a figure than the Carmelite Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (recognized as a “Doctor of the Church”) cautioned against corporal disciplines, which, themselves, can easily be abused.[5]  But the goal of such penitential practices were designed to help us recognize our own entanglement with evil.  Part of our shame, in this case, is our potential blindness or passivity to the abuses of power.  It is woefully easy to be intimidated by power.  It is similarly easy to be intoxicated by power.  (Recall Lord Acton’s memorable quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[6])

We have legitimate reasons to express our shame through acts of penance.  The abuses that are so shocking are perpetrated by individuals.  But as we point blame on individuals other than ourselves, we can identify and admit, too, our own corporate and personal guilt.  Admitting our own shame may help us respond appropriately to the work in which we each must now seriously engage in order to understand and eliminate the anguishing situation before us.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.quora.com/Are-we-all-born-with-cancer-cells
[2] http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1015-87582015000100009
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/world/europe/magdalene-laundry-reunion-ireland.html
[4] http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/04/we-have-met-enemy-and-he-is-us.html
[5] https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/ByIssue/Article/TabId/735/ArtMID/13636/ArticleID/8487/Sacrifices-of-the-flesh.aspx
[6] http://oll.libertyfund.org/quote/214

“Truth”

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     Summary

      It has been an embarrassing long time since my last post.  It is not entirely unexpected.  It is far easier to compose blog posts complaining in one way or another about my cancer.  When my experiences are ones for which I can only be enormously grateful, writing about the good news seems less urgent.The truth is that my chemo protocol, my prescribed anti-cancer regimen, coupled with the treatment accorded me by amazing and dedicated oncological nurses has resulted in a kind of temporary (hopefully long-lasting) stasis or balance.  My cancer seems to be at bay.  At the same time my body has somehow accommodated itself to the toxic drugs I’m receiving.  I am no longer so badly thrown off by the somewhat unpredictable side effects when they come.

      So this posting—rather than focusing on my cancer—is about “Truth”.[1]  It is prompted by a dinner conversation.  “What, exactly is Truth,” Monica asked, “given all the accusations of ‘fake news’, constant prevarications, and deliberate misdirections from our political leader(s)?”  

      It sounded like a reasonable question with a reasonable answer.  It turned out to be a long-historied issue debated by philosophers and theologians.This is my unlettered contribution to the dialog.

     Detail

Personal

In my parent’s generation, to accept a person’s word was to hear truth declared.

Protecting one’s word was of utmost ethical importance.  I can recall (perhaps from some high school ethics class) discussions about when and if it was ethical to lie—even to one’s enemies.  For example, was it breaking one’s word to answer an enemy’s question with, “They went that-a-way!” while pointing in the wrong direction?

Taking Oaths

      For very important juridical situations in the West, we’ve adopted the custom of swearing on a Bible to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”[2]  This invokes God to be a witness to the veracity of one’s testimony.  An oath is only truly effective, of course, if the individual swearing the oath believes in a deity.   Even if not, it raises consciousness in the oath-giver about how important is the veracity of one’s statements.
      Swearing an oath gives comfort to the adjudicators of Justice and the Public.

Ordeal by Water

      Another method of confirming whether or not a testimony is reliable is to verify it through trial.  One such method is to make a witness successfully endure a physical hardship, such as walking through a bed of hot coals to prove their truthfulness.[3]
      Accused witches (recall Salem) were sometimes stripped of their underclothes, bound with a rope and thrown in a pond of water.[4]   The rationalization for this bizarre test was convoluted.  It began with the presumption that witches were likely not to have been Baptised.  This supposition was strangely connected with a theory that—since water plays such a crucial role in the Sacrament of Baptism—water would repel witches and make them bob up to the surface of a pond or river.   Thus arose a cruel way of determining whether a woman was a witch or not.  Trussed and thrown into a body of water, those who were witches should be observed at the surface, rejected by the water.  Conversely, if a woman was not a witch, she should sink to the bottom of the pond and could be safely hauled up to be declared innocent… if, that is, her recovery was quick enough for drowning not to have occurred in the meanwhile.  But this did not worry the perpetrators of such despicable crimes.  To further shield them from committing murder there was a final rationalization.  If an innocent woman accidentally drowned, it was deemed to have been an intercession of a deity to correct the original miss-indictment and reassert the guilt of the deceased woman.  Either way, there was an external judge that exculpated the individuals active in the judgement and murder of women.  It was not their fault what happened!
      The emphasis with these techniques was to prove the veracity of the witness.  But what about the truth of their testimony?  Proving the veracity of anyone’s testimony has become increasingly problematic as science discovers the uncertainty of human perception.

Different Perceptions or Memories

      Psychologists set up an experiment to expose subjects to a staged traumatic event, like a robbery or accident.[5]  Afterwards, they interviewed their witnesses. To their surprise, the psychologists found that each of the subjects may possibly have “seen” quite different details.  Each might testify to their version of “truth”, but one person’s truth could be different from another witnesses’ “truth”.
      Indeed, few witnesses could correctly recall what actually occurred in the experiment.

The Problem of Single Witness

      Similarly, and equally disturbing, is the practical case in which no independent verification is possible of what actually happened.  Then, the testimony of a single individual may be enough to identify “Who done it?”  But would that individual’s testimony be true?
      Maybe.  Maybe not.

The Problem of Incomplete Information

      All of us can remember the Indian morality-fable of the blind men stumbling across an elephant and describing the beast from the perspective of what they touched: as in legs (The elephant is like a huge multi-trunked tree!”), the elephant’s side (The elephant is like a wall!”), the ears (the elephant is equipped with huge fans to keep him cool.), his tail (the elephant is like a rope!) or his curious tusks (The elephant is like a smooth spear!).
      Humans tend to extrapolate from inadequate information to a whole concept.  This is not a very reliable form of discovery according to Budhist scholars of the mid first-millennium BCE who first wrote down this morality tale.[6]

Testimony on the basis of Belief

      There is one category of truth that is incontestable.  It is in the testimony of one’s beliefs.  “Jesus is the Messiah” is an indisputable Christian Truth (with a capital “T”).  But a Christian’s Truth is not held to be true by others who hold the Judaic tenants of belief… or Muslim… or those who adhere to other faith beliefs, or none at all.  A declaration of a Christian believer can be considered an indisputable “Truth”.  But it is a truth circumscribed by qualifications.

Can Testimony ever be relied upon?

      The conclusion one reaches from this brief review is that a witness seemingly cannot be trusted to know the Truth (with a capital “T”).  Witnesses are not even reliable reporters of the truth (with a lower-case “t”.)  The awareness of such unreliability came early in human history.  This is verified by the development of numerous methods over time that were designed to attempt to ascertain and verify the truthfullness of a witness.  Notably, these many efforts were entirely independent of the actual testimony that was to be given.
      Regarding testimony itself, there seems to exist no independently verifiable method to identify truth versus error.

     Conclusion

      What, then, is the answer to the question “What is truth?”  Clearly, it begins with the veracity and truthfulness of the witness.  I’ve described, above, how difficult this is to attain.  Our parent’s generation gives us the correct way to think about truthfulness.  They taught that each individual’s habitual honesty, reinforced by ethical behavior, and expressed in accord with one’s core beliefs make a person’s testimony reliable.  Life lived according to these attributes confers what was called “character”.  It deserved careful and constant protection and preservation.
      The lives of persons of extraordinary character is often identified as wisdom, as, indeed, it is.  People who live a long life consistent with good character proclaim through their lives consistent and reliable truthfulness.  Christians call such people saintly.[7]
      We are blessed to have Saints among us.  Saints are models of the kind of witnesses we should each be to the world because the world has been shown to be replete with individuals less concerned about preserving character than by trading it in for worldly or short-term gain.  This is not a recent development but a persistent historical reality.  It might be claimed that debasing character is one of the “forces of evil” inflicting the world in which we live.[8]  It takes constant attention to recognize destructively self-centered behaviors.  It take a bit less effort to combat them with the character we choose to develop.  In the end, one can conclude that it is essential that we model the Saints we know if we are to exert a properly positive influence of truth on our world.
      One of the extraordinary qualities of Saints who have been historically revered as holy, is that their holiness is expressed through an enormous variability of talents that make them holy.[9]  This give us hope that in developing our own, sometimes seemingly idiosyncratic skills and talents, there is a road to our own particular sainthood.
      May we each become a witness to truth.
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[1] Google “what is truth?”

God the Creator is a plumber… or maybe a gardener

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Prolog 1

I have recently had the privilege and deep enjoyment of volunteering various services at a nearby Carmelite Monastery of cloistered nuns.(1) The types of services I provide might be subsumed under the title of “Jack-of-all-trades” (Johannes factotum). They are variable and various.
There is much to reflect upon in the relationship that has formed between me and the community, as well as in the variety of tasks that have been assigned me. Most recently, I was asked to make repairs to the somewhat complicated and undocumented 100-year-old water line serving the large community house and gardens. Plumbing is therefore, the subject of this cancerblog.

 

Prolog 2

But first, I must apologize to subscribers to this blog.
I have demonstrated what may be a widespread trait to prefer pondering and carping about complaints, challenges, puzzles and frightening experiences. Once such issues have been neutralized either by being resolved or because one has become reconciled and accustomed to the “new normal”, people (or at least, “I”) find less motivation to reflect and write about the comparatively settled situation after the chaos of uncertainty and insecurity.
I fear I may have left off posting new essays just at the nadir of what appeared to be largely unexplained and puzzling reactions to my combined treatments for various physical ailments. I feel an obligation to redress the impression I may have, unintentionally, left upon my readers.
Not all the ailments about which I pondered, were directly related to my cancer. But each of the treatment remedies complicated my chemotherapy. So it was a messy set of circumstances that beset me at the time.
The good news is that most of the several complications have been resolved (save, perhaps one: an unexpected “breathlessness” following even very mild exertion.) Apart from being prematurely out of breath from time to time, I feel well, excepting days I experience what I would call intermittent, predictable, and completely manageable side effects from my chemo treatments. My oncologist has modified my chemotherapy protocol. She has reduced my dose by 20% (no doubt minimizing negative side effects).
Better news, still, my periodic CT scans and x-rays conifirm that the treatment is demonstrably effective. My cancer tumors are shrinking, and there is no visible evidence of the cancer metastasizing to other parts of my body.

After a recent welcome and pleasant visit, a dear friend described me to a mutual colleague, writing to him, “Chet may be on his way out, but, honestly, you’d never know it from our visit.”
From the very day of conception we are all, in a way, already “on our way out”. John Lennon described it in a thoughtful way when he penned the lyrics, “He not busy being born, is busy dying.”(2)  I would like to believe that the way my colleague and friend judged that my appearance means I reflected my intention to aspire to the converse of Lennon’s cautioning expression; i.e. to keep busy at “being born”.
To the bad news. After reducing the dose of my chemo, my oncologist prescribed that I report to the Infusion Clinic for a three- to four-hour IV Infusion every other week, indefinitely.
“Every other week” seemed daunting enough, but the word “indefinitely” struck Monica and me as ominous and ambiguous. “Indefinitely” could mean my oncologist expected my treatments to be efficacious for only a limited period of time. Perhaps, statistically, she thought I might be expected to succumb to the cancer sooner than later, and would shortly traverse the mysterious path to “the way out”.
Alternatively, my oncologist might have used the word to suggest that my treatment could succeed in keeping my cancer at bay for years to come, having reached a kind of equilibrium between my cancer’s imperative to expand and grow, in contrast to the chemotherapeutic mandate to surround and contain my cancer and restrain its expansion. In this matter I choose to believe in the second explanation of her words.

What I have learned from plumbing at the Monastery

Few people are unaware of the ditty “Righty-tighty, Lefty-loosy”. My Dad did not know it so he never taught it to me. Instead, he used the metaphor of a clock to teach me that tightening a jar lid, or connecting a pipe required that I turn it “clockwise”. To open a jar, or disconnect a pipe required that I apply “counterclockwise” twisting pressure. After repeated instructions of whatever type, and through personal experience, the proper turning motion becomes ingrained and is second-nature to most children around the world. We all take it for granted.
I’m pretty good at solving those puzzles requiring a person to visualize in 3D, a 2D diagram of complicated objects. The goal of such puzzles is to identify two of five or more drawings that correctly illustrate the shape of one object viewed from different perspectives. Three or more of the drawings describe different objects. Only two among them describe a single object from different views.
Though proficient at the puzzles, I occasionally need tactile help when confronting a faulty pipe break in a complicated water valve manifold.(3) I find myself looking at the assemblage, unconsciously twisting my hand in a clockwise or counterclockwise motion to help me visualize what part I require in order to join a replacement pipe segment to an existing unbroken fixture.

Handedness. Pipes, jar lids, soda-pop screw caps, screw-on wine bottle tops, solvent container caps, automobile gasoline caps, moisturizer cream tops, baby bottle tops, the wind-up spring of a Grandfather clock… even all the fittings for the tubing from the infusion bags containing my chemo solutions to my surgically-implanted access port… all share and conform to the ditty from which our knowledge was inculculated about which direction “opens” and its opposite: which direction “closes”. All over the world it is the same turnings that do the trick.(4)
Besides “handedness” things that twist on or twist off have three other attributes worth mentioning: thread-count or “pitch”, gender, and diameter.
Pitch reminds us that a screw (or pipe, or any of its relations as shown above) is—at its source—an application of a wedge. Wedges are thought to have been first employed by Egyptian engineers in antiquity. And the wedge is considered to be one of six ancient “simple machines” developed by human ingenuity.(5)
A wedge is a solid rectangle that has a triangular elevation on one side. It has the useful property of changing the direction of force by 90º. This means that if you place a wedge under an object and apply a horizontal force to the wedge, it will cause a vertical force equivalent to the changing height of the wedge along the dimension of the wedge’s hypotenuse.
On a length of pipe, twisting threads contain the action of a wedge. The grooves (or threads) at either end of a prepared pipe are, in fact, spiral applications of wedges. Wedges, whether arranged in spirals or straight, perform exactly the same useful function. Admirably, when two wedges are combined opposite one another–as they are on a pipe and the fitting into which the pipe is to be screwed, the effect is doubled. The force required to twist or twist off is efficiently halved.
The threads on the end of a pipe can, themselves, be insized very closely together (lots of grooves within a given dimension), or coarsly (fewer grooves in the same given dimension). The number of threads describes the pitch. Pitch modifies the amount of force needed to achieve a specific vertical displacement.
Gender. Naturally enough, gender is commonly described as “male” or “female”. Male gender components fit ”into” a receptor. Female gender components “fit around” a receptor.
Diameter. Diameter defines the size of a screwable object. Specifying the diameter can be frustrating. Pipe diameters are defined in two ways. One way reports the inside diameter of the space within the pipe walls. A second way is to report the outside diameter of the pipe. The first measurement is important to guarantee sufficient flow volume while the second may be critical for planning how to route pipes through tight spaces.

In the situation I faced in the Monastary gardens, I needed to replace a broken length of water pipe along the courses through the gardens. I obtained a new length of pipe matching the handedness, pitch, diameter, flow, and length of the original. I removed a broken stub of the original pipe from its fitting and screwed one end of my replacement pipe into it. After attaching the replacement pipe it might seem intuitive that I could reverse my gaze 180º along the replacement pipe and repeat the motion; intending to twist the other end, clockwise, into another existing fitting from which the remaining stub of the broken pipe would have to be removed.
Intuition would—in this case—fail me. The original pipe—had it been left unbroken—would have had right-handed threads all along as originally installed. In repairing the break, I couldn’t simply reverse the handedness during a repair (without a fitting called a “union”.)(6)
Furthermore, had I “tried” the reverse-handedness twisting motion would have meant that as I screwed the pipe at one end, it would simultaneously be unscrewed at the other end which would have gotten me nowhere.)
Looking back along the circuitous and very long extent of the water line in the Monastery gardens I could discern that the run was composed of dozens, if not hundreds, of fittings, turnings, and pipe lengths. Moreover, as originally installed, all the connections were made with right-turning threads all the way back to the water meter, and indeed, all the way from the meter back to the municipal water reservoir or other ultimate source of water.
This regressive consistency reminded me of an ageless Hindu myth (echoed in variant forms in China and the East, and repeated even in Native American Cheyenne Indian cosmology and creation myths).(7) The surprisingly widespread mythical explanation of the movement of the Earth asserts that the Earth is carried on the back of a (seemingly quite robust) tortoise. Four elephants, facing the cardinal points on the compass, stand astride the tortoise’s back. The elephants assume the initial burden of holding the Earth. The tortoise supporting the elephants holding the Earth on their backs, stands on another tortoise’s back, and that one stands on another tortoise’s back, which in its turn stands on yet another compliant tortoise’s back, and so on, etc. ad infinitum. As far as the myth asserts, it’s “turtles all the way down”.(8)

Three turtles of varying sizes stacked on top of each other with the largest at the bottom                                                                           Photo from Wikipedia

In plumbing, it’s right-handed threads all the way back (and all the way forward, too).

Plumbers, as well as Johannes factotums, are thoroughly aware of what I’ve explained above (perhaps too exhaustively for most readers). Still, it is curious—especially for those of us capitalists accustomed to an inexhaustible supply of options—that, even in antiquity, engineers had defined a solution for plumbing applications by arbitrarily choosing a single option to the exclusion of alternatives. The chosen option (right-handed connections and fittings) quickly spread and eventually was adopted, universally, for screws, bolts, threads, and all manner of fixtures based on the simple machine, the wedge.
Scientist and author David Deutsch describes this situation in his book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World(9) by explaining two limitations to genetic inheritance. (1) nature adopts the simplest workable option that survives the test of “survival of the fittest.” (2) once a genetic function is found to be of use to an organism for sustaining life and propagating itself, that genetic function thereafter resists modification. In fact, most of the genetic modifications that are later introduced to a functioning characteristic are promptly rejected and the original simple solution continues to be isolated from further amendment.

God, the Creator (“Mother Nature” if you prefer) introduced similar limitations against superfluous options into all life on Earth. Evolution capitalizes on adopting particular traits that will contribute critically for survival and propagation. There is seldom a genetic choice offered to the survival of the fittest. (No organism is provided with cells that will produce two equally useful options for, let us say, optical chemical mechanics for sight. Nor are options provided as to where to position eyes on a body). Only a single workable instruction is passed down per organism, even though Nature provides a proliferation of choices among the world’s organisms. It would simply take too much energy to follow a multiple-choice decision tree, and the result might be chaotic incompatibility across a species.
Remarkably, in our lifetime, scientists have discovered a fundamental example of such restraint in the DNA in all organisms living on Earth. The DNA that encodes life on Earth has been verified to be universally and exclusively evolved with a right-handed DNA double helix. All life on Earth shares this same characteristic!(10)
It is theoretically possible that life could have adopted a left-handedness for DNA. But it didn’t.
It is far less likely that some form of latitude could have arisen, letting individual organisms choose to have their DNA encoded for either right or left. But that would have resulted in widespread incompatibility and was not selected for, either. So neither of the alternatives evolved, not left-handedness nor “optional handedness”. Once the right-handed double helix had evolved, nothing altered its development further. And all life on Earth has adopted a right-handed double helix for its DNA, just like plumbing has agreed on the standard of right-handedness.

From seemingly mundane bits of work in the Monastery (this time, in their Gardens), I’ve been blessed by thoughts that make me better appreciate so many of the things I take for granted. Some things, like the handedness of our DNA, we benefit from but have no power over. Other things, like the Sister’s choice to pursue a life more solitary and prayerful than the world typically provides—are under our control.
It is easier to reflect on my blessings than it is to grouse about my complaints when wrapped in the ambiance of such a grace-filled enclosure.

 

Sources

(1) Strictly speaking, the Monastery is better referred to as a “Carmel” since it is home to a Roman Catholic Order of Carmelite Discalced (sandaled or bare-footed) cloistered nuns.  The Carmelite Order finds its historical beginnings in hermetical communities that arose around Mount Carmel in the Crusader States in the Holy Land around the 12th century.
(2) https://genius.com/Bob-dylan-its-alright-ma-im-only-bleeding-lyrics
(3) manifold = a collection of closely-spaced mechanical valves, each controlling a defined series of, for example, sprinkler-heads or remote garden faucets.
(4) Although there are specialized examples where the rule-of-thumb does not apply, I, myself, have only confronted two non-conforming examples in my lifetime of Johannes factotum work. The screw holding my saw blade to its spindle on my circular saw is one. In that instance the rotating left-hand spin of the spindle might dangerously loosen any conforming right-handed screw holding the blade to the spindle. The force of the rotation would likely counteract the resistance of the screw. So a left-handled screw is used for this particular purpose to eliminate the conflict.
Another example is that of a turnbuckle. Turnbuckles are purposely constructed of both right-handed and left-handed turnings to enable modifying tension along a rod or flexible rigging.
(5) http://idahoptv.org/sciencetrek/topics/simple_machines/facts.cfm
(6) In audio electrical wiring, analogous to a pipe’s purpose, an adapter equivalent to a “union” is more descriptively called a “gender changer”. Changing gender is what a union accomplishes in the plumbing application I’m describing.)
(7) http://www.enricophil.it/tales/South_America/Scripts/tortoise.htm
(8) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down
(9) Deutsch, Peter, The Beginnings of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, Penguin, London, 2012. ISBN 978-08-140-27816-3
(10) https://phys.org/news/2014-09-dna-right-handed-helix.html

 

 

 

 

Extraordinary Medical Care

Summary

Last week, Monica and I reported for an appointment made for us with a euphemistically-called group of medical practitioners described to us as belonging to the “symptoms management consultation” team. We were surprised to read that our appointment was scheduled for a full 90 minutes, which left us with the impression we might be attending a group class or discussion group. But when our appointment time came we were ushered into a standard patient examination room. When the doctor arrived, the staff position embroidered on his lab coat indicated that our doctor was a member of Kaiser’s Palliative Care team. The time had come for us to talk.

Detail

Monica and I arrived for our appointment armed with all sorts of questions. We had experienced a kind of breakthrough dealing with my “sporadic wonkiness” and I wanted confirmation of our hypothesis that incipient dehydration might be at the root of my lightheadedness and dizziness upon standing. Earlier, our oncologist had noticed a slight abberation in my liver function lab results. As a consequence she had proactively ordered a bag of saline solution to be added to my chemo infusion protocol. The Infusion Nurse, meanwhile, had been monitoring my dizziness which continued after I arrived at the Clinic for my chemo infusion. When she saw the order, she exclaimed, “Good. This extra fluid will make you feel like a new man!” And so it did.

Dehydration is a tricky matter to diagnose. If I feel thirsty, it could be a sign that dehydration is near. If I don’t feel thirsty, that could be a signal. If I stop sweating when I should be sweating, it could signal I was lacking in fluids. Obviously, if I experienced a good deal of diahrrea (which is a common side-effect of chemo treatment) the rapid loss of fluids through the gastro-intestinal system could hasten the onset of dehydration. The most reliable indicator of dehydration turns out to be dizziness and lightheadedness upon standing. But those same symptoms can equally be caused by other ailments, so it was easy for both patient and doctor not to immediately realize that my dehydration was the underlying cause cause of my current lightheadedness.


Monica found some statistics that indicate how critical is fluid availability and why fluid balance for the body is so obviously important. She found that up to 60% of the human adult body is water. “According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158,” she quoted, “the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are a watery 31%.”

The “symptoms management” doctor proceeded to enlighten us about fluid intake and electrolyte balances. He reviewed my experiences to help us corroborate what we suspected to be true about the probable role of dehydration for my most objectionable side effect experience.(1)

Monica and I were both impressed by the patient thoroughness with which our doctor responded to the rest of our numerous questions fully and completely, all the while evaluating, I suspect, our state of mind and my state of health.

After we had exhausted asking questions from our individual lists, our doctor introduced the topic for which our appointment had truly been made, unbeknownst or all unaware to Monica or me.

“You realize, of course,” he began, “that what all of us, here, are doing for you is only treating your symptoms. Ultimately,” he continued, “barring any accidents or unexpected lightning strikes—you will die of this cancer. It might be a good time for you to think about (and discuss with your family) how you wish to die. What kind of care would you choose to have given to you at the end?”

Our doctor asked this question so candidly, directly and respectfully that I was momentarily taken aback.

I wanted to answer glibly, thinking to include in my answer the catch-all pseudo-sophisticated phrase, “After all, we all have to die.” I caught myself, just in time, recognizing that in this context it would have been a cop-out to say so. It would have been a denial that we were discussing a disease from which, I, personally, will most likely die; possibly earlier than later. The doctor was compassionately opening up a chance to confront end-of-life issues.


I have never given much thought about death. As a Roman Catholic, and inspired by my entire educational experience, I’ve considered death as an inexorable part of life; something natural to expect. The formula of the balance of energy suggests that when my body decomposes it will return to the earth certain minerals, chemicals and energy which the earth can utilize for the sustenance of new life. My faith doesn’t forbid my believing that my body is subject to the laws of Nature.

Science and religion, regrettably, are often cast as opposite antagonists. But such an antagonism is not entirely borne out by the historical record which shows how many experiments and scientific discoveries were advanced by church-men and -women. Perhaps it is because at the point of death, with its naturally heavy emotional overload, science and religion have their most electric disagreement about whether there is life after death; whether there exists some spiritual “soul” identified as “me” that persists after my life on this earth is finished.

It is simply non-productive to pursue this regrettable dispute because it distracts us from a better path of inquiry and because neither side will ever be able to prove its hotly debated polarized position on this subject… not in this life, at any rate.

It would seem to me far better to consider how rich and varied are our ways of learning and knowing, and to endeavor to build upon and expand them. Just by carefully observing nature, I can discover animal species that hear better, see beyond human capability, feel (with whiskers, tails or body hairs), and recognize the nature of their surroundings differently than I do. It is increasingly apparent that botanical life has completely different but impressive means of communication and even collaboration.

I share my creation with these other species. It is not unlikely that humans could learn and improve ways of knowing, that are presently only latent in us. The most important realization is that while humans learn through the application of conscious rationality to solve problems we face, we also learn by deepening spiritual sensibilities and relationships, as well… and each provides us with different growth.

Nor is the latter simply a matter of employing our emotions and feelings to achieve a (perhaps, illusory) sense of spirituality. It is, instead, that we should be open to relationship with the world around us, as well as with the world and with its Creator beyond us. That openness can reveal to us another dimension of perception, sharpen our sense of interconnectedness and let us explore our complicated relationship with our Creator. These activities help us peel away the onion layers of fear, self-protection, envy, and all the other consequences of sinfulness with which humans tend to wrap themselves. Openness to our spiritual dimension, relationship with God, and our created nature, throws open the possibility of dialog, self-introspection, humility, altruism, empathy and all the other graces and virtues with which the Creator has imbued each and every one of us.


I have been especially graced by continuing to be involved in a decade-long project that is just coming to a close. It involves the digitization of, and the making of a facsimile printed edition of a three-volume Bible once owned and annotated by the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach, himself.

Bach produced what most agree is among the most sublime music to enhance scripture and enrich the liturgical seasons of the Church calendar. Observing in the pages of Bach’s Bible the detailed attentiveness to the selection of readings Bach annotated by hand, one gains a deeper respect for how carefully Bach sought to combine his intellectual rational mind and his musically-sensitive creativity in presenting the words recorded in his Bible in an unforgettable and moving way.

Bach’s music adds a dimension of knowledge about the words. Scripture gives greater concreteness to his music.

On the recommendation of the principal leader of the Calov Bible facsimile project, I recently signed up, online, to receive notices from an impressive effort spearheaded by the Netherlands Bach Society. The Society aspires to produce new recordings of each of Bach’s thousands of compositions, long or short, published or fragmentary. They attempt to release one composition each week. Each composition is impeccably recorded and videographed. The releases are typically accompanied by a short commentary on the composition, a live interview with a performer or conductor, and a libretto in both Bach’s original language and in English translation. One can read the words while listening to the performance of each piece.

This week’s new release brought a Christmas dual-chorus motet(2) that seemed perfectly timed for my reflections. The first quotation is from one of the few places in the Bible where we hear God using direct address to speak directly to us. God could be facing me in the Infusion Clinic.(3) Bach’s music underscores the dynamic between trepidation and comfort.

First, God says, directly to me, “Fear not”.

Immediately thereafter He embraces me, the listener, with a bear hug: “for I am thy God.”

And again, in case we’ve missed the point, He says, “be not dismayed” (because God knows that we are truly distressed when confronting illness or being unable to comprehend the answer to our “Why?”).

Following immediately is the prompt explanation for why we should be at peace. It is a mild chiding and an instruction: “for I am thy God… I will strengthen thee and help thee; I will uphold thee…”

It is the interplay of fear and confidence that Bach underscores with his joyous music.(4) The short motet is joyous because of the inspirational message of the text, just as the announcement to the shepherds at Bethlehem opens similarly with the words “Be not afraid…” but announces the birth of the Christ-child. The joy in the motet is in the personal relationship with God that the prophet writes about, and in the confidence that, however low we may feel, God will support us through it. The motet, is known as the “Christmas motet”. But it may have been composed as a funeral melody. It works just as well in both circumstances.

Note the concluding words chosen by Bach for this motet. They are a sigh of relief and a (re)commitment of love for our Creator. The last verses are overlaid with mystery (for it is true that one thing Bach is not, is superficial or simple). This time Bach explores the mystery of the loving entanglement of Creator with creature, as in the last lines of the motet: “Let me… let me attain to where thou me and I thee may lovingly embrace.”

Following are the complete words of the motet. Following the words, is a link to the online performance(5):

Fear not, for I am with thee,
be not dismayed, for I am thy God.
I will strengthen thee and help thee,
I will uphold thee with the right hand
of my righteousness.

Fear not,
for I have redeemed thee,
I have called thee by thy name;
thou art mine.

Lord, my shepherd, fount of all joys!
Thou art mine, I am thine,
no one can part us.
I am thine, for thou hast given
thy life and thy blood
for my sake in death.

Thou art mine, for I embrace thee,
and will not, O my light,
let thee from my heart!
Let me, let me attain
to where thou me and I thee
may lovingly embrace.

http://allofbach.com/en/bwv/bwv-228/


Monica and have not answered the Palliative Care doctor’s specific question (for which question I am entirely grateful). But I know that the components to answering his question will have more to do with relationships than with medical interventions. I will hope, of course, to receive sufficient medical assistance not to struggle unnecessarily with death. But I have great confidence that as I die I will be surrounded by those whom I love and those who love me—whether they be physically present nearby or whether they will be physically distant and only spiritually by my side. We will experience death together. That will comfort me immeasurably.

I hope to meet my Creator infused with gratitude for every day of my life, for each person I have met—especially those closest to me. I wish to be humbly thankful for everything I have experienced and learned through generous teachers and friends. I want to be aware of the Creator’s bounteous generosity to me. I will long for His comforting embrace.

Let me, let me attain
to where thou me and I thee
may lovingly embrace.

 

Czet

_____________

(1) Since our meeting, I have been on a self-imposed fluid intake regimen. (In truth, the regimen is enforced by Monica rather than being mainly self-imposed.) Monica has researched and provides me with liters of enriched coconut water, and has stationed water bottles at all the spots in the house where I typically read, rest or play with Gracie. This makes  it unlikely that I will forget drinking my allotted volume of liquids. In the meantime, my sporadic wonkiness has abated, as has slightly, a persistent and annoying dry cough. Subduing the cough may require some more work. So, All is Well. I am tolerating the mild (thus far) common side effects, and am happy for the cessation of one of my more troubling items of concern.

(2) BWV 228 Fürchte Dich Nicht, Ich Bin Bei Dir

(3) I realize that, theologically, “God” has no gender. It is awkward to use some grammatical circumlocution to replace the masculine pronoun, so I have just kept it, with apologies.

(4) The website includes a conversation with the conductor as well as the principal soprano, in which they both discuss the need to vocalize the differences when singing the words of fear as contrasted with the words of comfort.

(5) According to the “All of Bach” website, the source of the text is as follows: “Verses 1 and 2 are taken from Isaiah 41:10 and 43:1; verses 3 and 4 are taken from Paul Gerhardt’s chorale ‘Warum solt ich mich denn  grämen’ (1653)”.

Thanksgiving reflection – learning to be thankful for cancer

Summary

In my last blog post I was surprised to recall my Dad’s constant reminder, “Nie daj się!” (Never surrender yourself!) I sought to discover what he really meant. Today, on the distinctly American holiday of Thanksgiving, I wondered if I could approach the Thanksgiving table ready to express thanksgiving, even for my cancer! It has, perforce, captured my, and my family’s, worried attention. But maybe there are ways in which it can be a catalyst for some understandings I might otherwise never have sufficient motivation to explore.

Detail

Step into any Catholic Church anywhere in the world. Look around and you will soon find (usually arranged around the perimeter of the nave) a series of 14 illustrated or carved images representing the last hours of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. These images are used year-round for private meditation, the goal of which is to deepen one’s awareness of the unutterable suffering and agony of Jesus’ passion and death, and—simultaneously—to raise consciousness of one’s own personal sinfulness and subsequent participation in Jesus’ passion. (Sin, in this context, might be defined as an unthinking separation from God and my community. In place of these essential relationships, sin adopts the illusory centrality of my self, what most pleases me, and what most closely conforms to the idea of “on my terms.”)

During the last days of Lent—during what is called “Holy Week”—the “Stations of the Cross”, as they are called, become part of the Church’s public liturgy.

Clearly, this is serious spiritual fare. Yet meditations of this kind lead to, and are components of the central run-up to the great feast of Easter, the most important feastday of the Church calendar. Even for those who disdain spiritual or religious belief, the effort to come to terms with suffering is certainly beneficial. It can result in a deeper understanding of the role of suffering in our person, in nature, and in the world. Suffering, after all, is something with which each of us has intimate experience.

Contemporary Western society finds little value in suffering. In fact, avoiding suffering has become a cultural priority. I might be out-of-bounds to assert that everyone can and should welcome suffering. But it is not impertinent to suggest that for those who may be ready to confront their suffering head-on in spiritual meditation, doing so could prove valuable. The Stations of the Cross can act as a good catalyst… so can be something like a chronic life-threatening disease. Seen in this manner, I could be grateful for anything—even my illness—if it helped me understand who I am and how I want to live.


There’s a virtue to which we are taught to aspire. It is empathy. True empathy is hard to attain. It is too easy to slip into pity or disinterested observation, as if simply observing someone in distress and recognizing their pain is empathy. It is not.

Throughout my experience of cancer, I have been forced to come to terms with my vulnerability, dependence and embarrassment. For me, these have been serious obstacles to reconciling myself to the presence of cancer in my body. (This entirely self-centered reaction is precisely a manifestation of the sinfulness to which I earlier alluded.)

If—with an opposite outward-directed perspective—I observe the attentiveness of Monica and my children to me, in my “fallen condition”, I begin to see why empathy is a virtuous goal.

Let me use a couple of uncomfortable but decidedly real examples.

I don’t know if there is any connection at all with chemo and my olfactory sense. Both in Round One, several halcyon years ago, or this Round Two, that I’ve just begun, my sense of smell seems to have been aroused and heightened. Mainly, what I smell, I don’t like. The predominant offensive smell is, alas, me. I’m embarrassed by it. It is strange that I—who, after all, am intimately acquainted with my own familiar (and, to me, comfortingly pleasant) odors—no longer recognize myself in my normal odors. No doubt this is caused by my body as it naturally metabolizes my chemotherapeutic agents and rids itself of the toxic chemicals pumped into me over a length of hours and even days. Even my excretions contain their chemical smell. My breath and exhalations are different and unpleasant to me. Even my sweat smells odd. I hope no one else notices, but I can’t help believing that they, too, are offended.

I am also experiencing what Monica and I have come to call “Sporadic Wonkiness”. The worst of it is, Sporadic Wonkiness assails me from an unknown etiology. I cannot tell what it is, much less what is causing it. In practical terms, out of the blue, I feel myself being out of breath… but not really, because I am breathing in deeply and exhaling normally. Yet I feel an overall physical weakness, as if my breath is providing its essential oxygenation exclusively to my lungs and no further. The experience is often accompanied by a slight dizziness, even a distortion of my sight. I feel as if I might faint.

So far, the wonkiness has always passed, and I’ve returned to “normal”. But it doesn’t help, psychologically at least, that—just weeks ago—a dear friend/priest/art historian/professor in our parish had just begun his own protocol of chemotherapy. A couple months ago, he was driven home from his Clinic. While walking towards his room, he reportedly turned to his friend who had driven him from his hospital appointment, and said, “Gosh. I can’t seem to catch my breath.” Immediately thereafter, he quietly collapsed and died on the spot. I can’t help wondering if—just as unexpectedly—I, too, might leave this life in the same sudden manner.

“Sporadic Wonkiness” is undeniably frightening. It also frightens those, especially Monica, who observe me when I’m under the thrall of “wonkiness”.

I am dutifully reporting these symptoms both to my oncologist and my cardiologist in the hope they can discern a treatable condition of some kind that can be understood and amoeliorated. My reports are not enough for my wife and daughter.

Throughout this journey, Monica has steadfastly and generously tolerated and cheerfully accommodated herself to my odd culinary preferences, weird schedule, strangely unfamiliar—even to her—smells, and my occasional odd mood swings. But she has also actively participated in applying all her skills and ministrations—physical, psychological and spiritual—to assist me. Importantly, as she has added my special care to her activities, Monica has not allowed my care to displace her own social and professional commitments. This—particularly the latter, I think—is comforting to me.

Similarly, Krysia is not satisfied with what she sometimes considers my over-subtle reports to my doctors. Krysia confidently barges right in—as the capable advocate she is—writing or calling my doctors to say things like “You know those symptoms my Dad discussed with you? Don’t be fooled by his demeanor. They are not merely ‘occasional nuisances’. From my perspective, they are dangerously detrimental. Here’s what I know that he may not have communicated strongly enough. What should we be watching for? What else can we do to help you aggressively care for him?”

Such active involvement signals, to me, the expression of empathy. Empathy is not merely sympathetic observation, but a “living together with” someone in trouble or in pain, contributing when possible whatever may be truly helpful. A critical component of empathy is to avoid crossing the line by which the empathizer “loses themselves” in solving another’s difficulty. Such self-destructiveness is another by-product of sinfulness, one by which we proudly believe exclusively in personal power and claim we can alone accomplish more than is ever possible. Such self-aggrandizement is destined for failure. Scripture records that Jesus, himself, was tempted to believe in his complete and sufficient independence from his Father.

Having someone simply share a burden of illness is more than enough. It provides dignity to both the giver and receiver of empathetic ministrations.

Achieving true empathy is definitely a difficult balance. Being surrounded by empathetic caregivers is something for which I can be truly thankful on this Thanksgiving holiday… and every day.


Can I, in my turn and condition, develop empathy, myself? Here’s a difficult case.

At the very moment of this writing, innocent individuals and families in the cities of Mosul and Aleppo are suffering grievous murderous hostilities over which they have no control. They are victims of their condition in some real way not dissimilar to mine in relation to my cancer. Can my cancer help me empathize with those individuals?

I think the answer is “Yes”. But it takes some reflection to tease out “How?” And it will take humility if I cannot discern any empathetic physical action I can contribute.

The news media gives us sensational sound bytes. The reports of what alone is happening (much less attempting to explain why they are happening) are clearly disconcerting but altogether momentary, squeezed in, as news stories are, between advertising commercials for the newest car and the most attractive Black Friday sale items. Not a bit of empathy, understanding or helpful interpretation is to be found on TV or radio in such reports.

Instead, I can focus my attention on a nameless but personalized individual in his situation in an Aleppo neighborhood. I recognize that the man is exhausted with worry and fear just like I am… Really?…

My worry and fear is shared with my medical caregivers, family and friends. He has lost most of his family to bombardment in the past week and has not even been able to accord them the dignity of a burial. He is surrounded by people, all of whom are traumatized, as is he. There are abundant causes of his distress.

I have the luxury of distracting myself from my fears by contemplating and articulating my observations for myself and for those others who may be interested. He has no place for contemplation. Half his house has been ripped apart. His precious personal and family belongings are scattered in the rubble of what used to be the street where he lived.

If my “Sporadic Wonkiness” ultimately disables me, I am confident someone will call for an ambulance to take me to the closest ER where competent attention will be administered. He can be certain that no such attention will be available to him. Even were he to painfully strain his back or suffer a broken limb, there is no hospital or urgent care center in his neighborhood, much less pain-relieving medications; nothing more potent than the few aspirin tablets he discovers, unaccountably, in his pocket.

Worse still, my, by now, friend, hovers helplessly over his wife, who is wracked in pain from a deep gash in her ankle. He looks toward his granddaughter, trembling in the doorway; a horror-stricken look in her blankly-staring eyes. No mirth. No playfulness. No innocent childhood is being imprinted in her dear memory. He, who has been their reliable protector and provider, realizes he is helpless to offer any assistance whatsoever to either of his most beloved.

The realities of this one man’s life bring tears to my eyes. I am crying not only for the pain of his situation, but for my selfishness in ever thinking my own worries and fears were so vainly important to me.

I cannot do anything to physically help my fellow human in need. Like Job, I cannot even comprehend any rationale or fathom any explanation to account for why he is being tormented so. But there exists a real, though ephemeral, link between the man in Aleppo and myself.

Scientists are discovering similar linkages all around us, in nature. In the midwest there exists a massive mycological network in which individual fungi operate so collaboratively that scientists prefer to call the hugely extensive assembly a single organism. There is evidence of a kind of altruism that can take place among individual trees in a forest where the healthiest trees contribute some of their energy, through their root systems, to weaker trees. Whales participate in their community through audible signals that, reportedly, travel across the widths and breadths of oceans in order to keep the community in touch with one another.

The Dominican Sisters at my grammar school knew what to teach their young charges on this subject. They suggested it was possible—since we were all members of one spiritual body—to consciously “offer up” our (puny) discomforts. It was lasting advice. I can offer my discomforts as expiation for my shortcoming, and pray that—however valuable it may be to offer up my sufferings for this man—I do so gladly and intentionally to alleviate his burden. I hope and trust that he will be sustained in his grief and will experience a glimmer of hopefulness from the energy I send his way. Even such an insignificant glimmer of hope may mean his survival. A glimmer may be equivalent to the minutest measurable bit of energy. But it can travel across the globe to reach my friend in Aleppo. That can serve both me and him.

For this man, I can do no more. But neither can I do anything less. He and I are related in the mystery of our creation. I am thankful, today, that it is possible to transform my discomforts into something so precious.


I am receiving an infusion, among others, of a drug called Irinotecan. Irinotecan is unabashedly described in the Fact Sheet given me at the hospital as an “irritant”. It begins its caustic irritation to the inside of my veins the moment it comes in contact with them. Medical staff handle this drug with extreme care. Even though I realize that medical descriptions carefully list and describe each and every potential side effect of a compound being tested for medical implementation (and even if only one person among hundreds of clinical trial patients experience a particular single negative reaction), the list makes daunting reading. It reminds me of some of the darker of Edgar Allen Poe’s literary oeuvre.

What caught my attention was the fact that Irinotecan is a compound comprised exclusively of botanical molecules. Here’s a single paragraph from several pages of description I was given.

Irinotecan belongs to a class of chemotherapy drugs called plant alkaloids. Plant alkaloids are made from plants. The vinca alkaloids are made from the periwinkle plant (catharantus rosea). The taxanes are made from the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree (taxus). The vinca alkaloids and taxanes are also known as antimicrobule agents. The podophyllotoxins are derived from the May apple plant. Camptothecan analogs are derived from the Asian “Happy Tree” (Camptotheca acuminata). Podophyllotoxins and camptothecan analogs are also known as topoisomerase inhibitors. The plant alkaloids are cell-cycle specific. This means they attack the cells during various phases of division [in the process of which, they also raise havoc with (i.e., kill) a lot of my otherwise innocent and mainly-beneficial fast-growing cells].

I’m grateful that someone at Kaiser believed patients should not be “talked down to” and believed that some might be sufficiently interested in reading this decidedly Latinate and professional scientific description.

Reading this paragraph brought to my mind the Brother Cadfael-like horticulturalists and investigators like Gregor Mendel, Carl Linnaeus, countless relied-upon but persecuted “witches” over the ages [especially them], apothecaries, and botanical scientists of various stripes and specialization whose names are unknown to me, but who have advanced the earlier “primitive” work of their forebears. It recalled for me adventurers like Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks, Alexander von Humboldt and so many other intrepid explorers whose precise and carefully-documented and carefully pressed and dried botanical samples populate our great horticultural herbaria across the globe. The early investigations and hypotheses have blossomed [sorry] into current enthusiasm for agricultural diversity, efforts to preserve heirloom plant varieties and the worldwide effort to establish seed banks. It will come as no surprise that, second only to books of prayer, the meticulously and beautifully illustrated horticultural albums are the most treasured of “rare books”. They are still consulted today.

I sometimes wonder if the Angel Gabriel didn’t show considerable mercy when banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Yes, the angel knew the errant couple and their offspring would be condemned to toil and labor, but Gabriel made certain that all the cures, devices and sensitivities Adam and Eve’s progeny would need for survival and prosperity were to be found scattered around them in plain sight. Thenceforward humankind needed only to look, study and discover the answers to their needs. Doing so, of course, depends upon humankind’s (and my own) attitude of respect, careful preservation, and responsible attention to the natural habitat in which we live. Gabriel was highly respectful of human capabilities. That optimistic opinion forms a challenge to which we continue to aspire.

On this Thanksgiving day I can be—and am—grateful for the mysterious operation of plants in my life, both in their contribution to my nourishment and in their particular contribution to combatting my cancer-cells-gone-amok. Added to my appreciation for plants, specifically, I can add thanks for the individual contribution of dedicated and persistent individuals across time who have pursued their insights and experience. They intuited that plants possessed secrets that could eventually defeat debilitating diseases like mine. Finally, I am grateful for the pharmacists, nurses, and medical practitioners who dare risk exposure to these toxic compounds to corral them for my individual needs.


Can I be thankful for my cancer as I approach the Thanksgiving table today?  At this point in my journey with cancer, I can profess a hopeful “Yes”.  I can’t be certain that I will be able so to claim as time (and my cancer) progresses. I admit to worrying about how I will manage to deal with the ultimate debilitating effects of the disease. But I hope that contemplating it, now; learning about it (to the extent I am able); and discovering and training my own reactions to conform to an ideal about which I’m learning, will serve me to maintain balance into the future. I pray for the grace to incorporate into my interior life what I’m learning about suffering.

I realize I am graced in countless ways. I realize I am not a victim. I know that suffering has much to teach me. I am not alone and am immensely grateful for family, caregivers, friends and to all those who pray for me because they know and care for me.

 

All these make me feel unreservedly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Chet