Sunday, March 31, 2013

More things people say, and misc.

Piles of healthy things on kitchen counter. 
Sunday, 1:17 pm. Sudden downpour. It sounds really great. I'm drinking a smoothie made of berries, mango, kale, spinach and misc. powders. I haven't done the full-on cleanse yet because I haven't read the book.

I realize that I am waiting for one of two things:
  1. To develop symptoms, which will escalate for a few months until they kill me; or, 
  2. To not have developed symptoms for the number of months that indicates I'm in remission (don't know that number).
Either could happen. #1 more likely? It's very limbo-like, and not in the sense of the fun dance game you play in Trinidad (but maybe partly like that?)

I got a sweet card in the mail from a friend in England. Among other things, it said, "I will really miss you." From my point of view, this is like hearing, "After you cease to exist, blah blah blah blah." (I was laughing when I wrote that!) It's  fascinating, some of the things people say/write to me. In any case, I love getting letters. 

I also noticed or realized there is an area I am touchy about. The fact is that the issue of whose fault it is being sick, or assuming anything has psychosomatic causes, is touchy for me. I am surrounded by very kind people who tend not to accuse me of having caused my own cancer, however sometimes I do notice that people assume they know why someone got sick (he got the attention that he wanted through his illness, or how could she really have developed symptoms so quickly after getting diagnosed?) Or ideas or models that attribute THE cause of disease to the mind. Judging someone else's illness in this way upsets me, it doesn't even have to be my illness.

View from kitchen window,
Buildings downtown at sunset.
On the other hand, what does one say to someone who's dying or sick? We look at our future selves as if out of a Dickens story, and maybe start babbling to the spectre. There is also a Buddhist ceremony (called kalyana mitrata or spiritual friendship) about which I won't go into detail, but just say that it involves two Order members. In my case, it was suggested that there be three Order members, which I've never heard of before. Obviously a backup plan or two Order members for when I'm dead! I decided not to take it personally though it was tempting to do so. In a way it's better for me too, then I don't worry as much about the effect of my death on other people.

Sadly, my stepmom Chris, who my dad has been married to for 33 years, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She is feeling very poorly now and having a hard time managing my dad, who needs a lot of help these days. Much about her condition and possible treatment is still unknown, but it is very upsetting. It has, however, helped me to know more how people have felt about me. For example, I would like to see her, but I'm sure that is not what she needs. What she needs is help, not people who are moved to visit because she is sick. (Perhaps some people who are sick love visiting, and it depends on how much of an energy drain it is for the particular person.) Laura's going to be down there tonight to help them out for a few days. I hope I can do that some time but it depends on my own energy, visitors and other commitments.

We did the MBSR daylong yesterday. It's great working with Bill and Allison, and the best part was seeing how changed people's faces were at the end, so much gentler and more relaxed. But I just barely, if at all, had the energy to do it (or around 1/3 of it, which is what I did.)

Today, my head hurts when I cough and I am spending a lot of time in bed.

Sounds and Visuals Section

Here is a photo essay (among other things) that Pasadini (who is recovering from thyroid cancer) sent: The Battle We Didn't Choose: My Wife's Fight with Breast Cancer. Click the first photo and keep clicking Next. It is beautiful and sad.

Still Alice
, as I mentioned in the last post, was great.

Watched Heaven with Cate Blanchett which I thought was well done, but my very limited capacity for the falling-in-love-forever-in-ten-seconds type of love story gets in a way of a high rating. Also watched a few episodes on Netflix of Mushi-Shi, a weird anime with 20 minute episodes featuring a spirit healing Sam Spade type character.

Final words of wisdom (oops, I probably shouldn't say 'final', eh?) from Hridayashri via CK:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Biology of Beliefs

I'm in Lake Tahoe, where John Goodman
stole my phone for a bit.
I get a fair amount of book, movie, and video suggestions. One that caught my eye recently was the documentary on youtube, The Biology of Beliefs (on youtube) with Bruce Lipton.

After a detailed and well-illustrated delving into cell biology, he shows how at some point genes get activated by their environment. He then moves to, but does not show, how the content of that environment must be comprised of one's perceptions or beliefs. The specific factors he mentioned that create a bad environment for cells were lack of love, and stress.

I transcribed this from near the end of the film:
Beliefs act as a filter between the real environment and your biology...If your beliefs are off, you're going to select genes and that are inappropriate for the environment...Here's the beautiful part: we can remove the filters that interfere with our lives. 
I thought the explanations of cell biology were excellent, and I also liked the emphasis on the power of the mind. His angle on it is very positive: you can change your perspective and thereby change your cell environment. The implication though that THE cause of disease is attitude bothers me. I don't doubt that some diseases are caused, and cured, to some degree by the mind. I don't doubt that there are diseases caused to some degree, and cured, by nutrition, physical activity, and medicine, or lack of them. Other factors I can think of right now: environmental toxins, genes.  

Recently, sinus issues
I don't think the guy is trying to blame people for getting sick, but rather to be more aware of the effect of the mind. However, the implication is there, and it yanks my chain. Surely one's beliefs cannot be the sole cause of disease. 

Here's a cool study from U Mass about changes in the brain that result from MBSR courses: Meditation appears to produce enduring changes in emotional processing in the brain

Excellent movie: Come Hell or High Water, a visually stunning documentary about body surfing (saw it on a big screen at the Patagonia store last weekend.)

Excellent lecture series: The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins. Where else can you find out the difference between ask, question and interrogate?

Amazing novel that Kathy gave me: Still Alice by Lisa Genova. (Especially if you know anyone with Alzheimers.)

I had a hard time finishing this post because of finding it kind of boring. Hopefully you didn't. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Oncology avoidant no more

Kathy and Paris came from Singapore for spring break. We are in the mountains. This isn't a representative picture of Lake Tahoe, nor can you even see Paris and Kathy, but the sign does reveal the outcome of...things.

I have an appointment with the allergy clinic on Monday, and an appointment with Dr. Nelson on Wednesday. She wants to check out my cough and for me to get an xray. Yikes! It makes me feel a little panicky. At least I got to be oncology-avoidant for a few months. That was sweet!

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Shop window in the Mission.
Not sure what they were selling.
This morning I talked to Anna Dowling, the RN who works with Amy Nelson. From what I described of my symptoms and what helps them (clearing out dust, mold, and taking Benadryl) she agreed that it sounded like allergies are what have been plaguing me. While acknowledging that cancer and allergies can share some of the same symptoms (in my case, fatigue, chest congestion and coughing), she said the kind of symptoms associated with cancer are: perpetual difficulty catching breath, difficulty lying down because of coughing, and a lot of trouble with any kind of physical exertion. I do not have any of this. She said she'd send an email to Dr. Nelson and my GP.

I know that to most people, allergies don't sound like anything, especially compared to cancer. It really has been rather debilitating, though it's better since I cleaned things up a bit and got a mattress cover.

Something happened when I was walking to the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) class last night. It was a big yet subtle change with mostly wordless content that isn't really possible for me to describe, but I will try to articulate...

During the walk I noticed that I was feeling the usual dread and resistance. And after every class I think, that was good, so glad I did that. Not just this time, but literally for years, this same feeling, and the same change of feeling. Suddenly I thought...what is this? It happens before pretty much everything I teach, almost a feeling of doom. What is it? And something unraveled. A deep and murky and unconscious thing. Something about being good, or good enough. Though it is subtle, an energy below the surface, I felt the locked in quality, how it is tight and dark and completely self absorbed.

Julie's brother's gorgeous dog, Mack
At the practice day last weekend, I almost completely dropped it. It's so simple (but I assure you the process of getting there isn't!), but I felt a little underprepared. In some way I felt quite baffled about what to do. How to help people let go? I have no fricking idea. It just happens, you can't make it happen. But there it was on the Center calendar, a description of sorts about a day of letting go. While leading it I knew there was nothing to worry about. I was simply offering what I can offer, since there is nothing more than that I can do. There were a few times during the day, when the thought arose, this is not good enough, but I let it go. It felt like stepping out of a cage. Several people have told me they really enjoyed the day and got a lot out of it. I'm happy that some people feel they benefitted from it; in a way, my attitude toward it stays the same.

Over the years I have often had some degree of fear or nervousness around teaching, at least in some situations. Coupled with a habit of ignoring fear and plowing ahead, there has been little opportunity to examine it. So walking to the MBSR class, there was a paradigm shift. I resolved to think of the class in terms of giving a gift, of offering something. There is nothing much I can do right now about whether the gift is accepted, or even the quality of the gift. The gift is something about practice, based in my own experience, that I am trying to communicate. The experience of teaching, or probably anything, is painful (some of you will know the term, dukkha) to the exact degree that it's about needing affirmation of any kind or on any level. Not that you don't care if people get something out of it; more that you care in a way that brings more freedom.

The murky I'm-not-good-enough attitude was fascinating to explore. It melted under scrutiny and left a much freer way of being. It occurred to me how much  anti-ego, which in Buddhism is the same as ego, I have brought to teaching, at least some of the time, all these years. It seems that this has changed a bit, at least for the time being.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thoughts about Food

Out on the scaffolding the other day.
(Building is being painted and
windows replaced.)
I'm reading Clean by Alejandro Junger, MD, which describes a 'cleanse' diet I am going to do possibly soon. Two friends have done it and recommend it. Some other friends did "The Master Cleanse" but I feel that, considering my condition, I want something gentler than that.

I've read a few books about nutrition and cancer, and books more generally about nutrition and what are called "diseases of affluence," which among other things are linked to cultures consuming a lot of animal protein and fat including cheese and other dairy products. (These diseases a la Wikipedia include: heart disease, obesity, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, asthma, some types of allergies, depression and other mental health conditions.) Most vegetarians don't realize that cheese has more cholesterol than meat, and that cholesterol is linked with many diseases, including cancer. All or most of the books recommend an organic, vegan, vegetable intensive, low glycemic index, low fat, whole grain (no white flour/rice), no added sugar (I'm sure I'm forgetting something) diet. Legumes.

It's appalling how misleading food labels are in this country. For example, "honey bread" or "whole wheat bread" that have no honey or whole wheat in them. Savory foods - soups, ketchup, peanut butter, certainly bread - essentially any prepared food in an ordinary supermarket - have sugar added to them (and many other, stranger things.) The first ingredient in a Trader Joe's chocolate bar with "no added sugar" is maltitol, which is a sugar alcohol (and a laxative) that contains three out of four of the calories of sugar. Ingredients lists are full of surprises.

What happens with processed or prepared foods is they essentially remove most of what I would call actual food from it, and then sometimes 'fortify' it by adding back a couple of vitamins. Another reason labels are unreliable. Anything that has to be 'fortified' has had all the health has removed from it beforehand. And the reason unhealthy food is so cheap is that the vast majority of produce subsidized by the USDA ends up in junk food. (But that's a different topic!) Even much organic processed food contains weird additives and sugar.

Even if you read ingredient lists, they don't show how they were prepared. Like any fruit or veg. juice you buy is pasteurized, which essentially means it is cooked and some if not all of the phytochemicals that might have made it good for you have been eliminated. Pasteurized juice is mostly just a sugar drink, and tastes like it to me, especially apple juice. It seems that raw and cooked ingredients can have a very different chemistry, and that raw foods tend to contain more nutrients and have a lower glycemic index. I have trouble digesting too much raw veg, but I try to get other foods raw, especially nuts, dark chocolate occasionally, or stevia. Chinese medicine tends to be against eating much in the way of raw food, and suggests light cooking for a warming effect and easier digestion. 

And don't get me started about the Mediterranean Diet! The overriding message that we get from it always seems to be about the fat. What about the folks it was based on who had physically strenuous lives, and ate very fresh food every day including lots of vegetables and garlic, fruits and fish? No, the message is, olive oil is good for you. I don't know. Maybe this is helpful to people who use unhealthier oils. But then again if you batter and fry up your lunch in olive oil, does it then become "health food"? More the better?

Which reminds me: Many of us are very opinionated about food, thinking what other people eat, or their ideas about health, are simply stupid! A friend recently scorned those of us who like "fake meat." Why not just eat tofu?, was rather testily asked. I've mentioned before noticing a friend commenting (without joy let us say) on the food I'm eating as "Hm. Looks healthy."  (And of course I don't think most of what that person eats is actually food!) I'm sure I am just as opinionated as 'the next guy', however I do try to reserve judgment about what other people eat. Really, it's none of my business. It's more the ideas about it that we get tangled up in. What one person says is healthy, another asserts is not...And the preferences are intense. As a culture we are confused about what we should be eating. Ideas about the good and the bad of eating habits sweep through America in waves...

Anyway. Whatever I know in my head does not necessarily translate into what I feel like eating, or what I am willing to prepare for myself. I'm hoping Junger's program will get me on track. I want to 'reset' so that I start craving things that are actually good for me again. This to me is the motivation to do a 'cleanse' or a special diet for a while.

Most of what I am writing here about nutrition is from memory. I probably got some of it wrong. You can get the straight stuff from the books I recommend on the Books page. (As I mentioned a few days ago, someone gave me The China Study recently, but those results are included in other books.)

I had a lot to say about all this. I am interested in your thoughts about food, too.

I'm back home now. I still want to wash curtains, remove a layer of carpet, and dust more but so far the crazy coughing in my somewhat less dusty and moldy bedroom seems to be OK.  I can still feel something when I am in this apartment...maybe congestion but not to the point of coughing...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Some relief

Close-up of my bedroom window,
Part of the reason I'm a bit light lately on photos is that my iPhone 4s has a broken wifi antenna. It is a known defect. But until recently, it was only known by other people. I did a 'factory reset' last week, after making sure my apps and everything else were backed up. But yesterday it broke again. A "high class problem," I know.

I spoke with the palliative social worker today for an hour and a half. We talked about the POLST form, more about the Advanced Health Care Directive, and how hospice works at Kaiser. And I mentioned that I don't think my recent intense coughing is from cancer, but that one always wonders. I don't have my notes with me but one of the things she suggested is calling Anna D, the nurse/assistant to Dr. Nelson and asking her if there is a way I can tell the difference between a cancer caused cough and a cough caused by something else. That was a good idea (though there might not be an answer.) That social worker is worth her weight in gold!

After talking to her and having falafels with Tong, I felt completely wrecked. (In truth I have felt wrecked for the last five days or so. I can barely function.) I drove to Bed, Bath and Beyond and bought a hypoallergenic mattress and pillow covers. I came home and lay on my bed unable to move much. My chapter meeting cheered me up.

Mike's "send-off" yesterday.
It was fun.
Putting on the mattress cover was challenging! And I vacuumed my carpet and shelves and edges, geez so much crap in there, haven't even unpacked from New Orleans yet! I pulled stuff away from the windows and washed them with bleach, being super careful not to get bleach on my perpetually dark clothing.

I could have asked for help cleaning, but didn't really feel I could ask someone to clean out my crappy old carpet-layered and otherwise cramped and cluttered dusty moldy room. I do wonder if I will be able to keep living there. The construction next door is supposed to go on for a year. I'm also concerned that the mold on my window sills is "toxic black mold". The websites say that even after you kill it (whatever kind of mold) it's still bad for you. They also say that those with allergies and compromised lungs are the most effected...I don't know what it is, but I feel terrible in that house for the last few days.

Now I'm at Julie's. Her cats make my eyes itch a bit (that's also new) but other than that I'm golden. I have hardly coughed at all since I got here.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

So many ways of being old

I have felt unhealthy since I got back from New Orleans. Again, all the plans I was making, especially teaching an MBSR class on my own, I'm sure that now I don't have the energy for them. I cough a lot and it hurts my head. I am tired, whether or not I can sleep. Of course my diet went south and I haven't been exercising enough. The change in health could be simply because of this.

When I skyped with Cull in Singapore the other day, she was hacking her little head off too - allergies. Last night I took a Claritin before going to bed and I seem to feel better this morning, but who knows. There is a lot of construction around my house and there has been a lot of dust, which I am allergic to. (However, I cough while in other places too.) Then again my real coughing started on the day, or close to it, that they started construction next door...

My latest development in the decade+ of aging that has taken place in my body in the last year is my teeth. I've always had very healthy teeth. (A couple of years ago my dentist told me not to come back in six months for a cleaning, to wait a year.) Now, since the last, say, three months, I can see my gums receding and my teeth discoloring. The taste in my mouth is totally different, and I think why I am thirsty all the time, to get the taste out of my mouth, which never happens though it does get diluted. Short version: in the last three months, my teeth have gotten old. Healing with Whole Foods advises brushing with baking powder, which I did this morning. My mouth felt better.

My fingernails and toenails were also chipping and falling off in a new way for a while. That has kind of stopped I think. At least I have groovy hair.

I was saying the other day to someone: is that what aging is, more and more body maintenance until your entire day is full of it? For a while all you have to do is take a shower and eat occasionally, then it's medicine on the toes and yoga and teeth problems and hair on your face and allergies and asthma and medicines and teas and herbs and supplements and exercises for this and takes all frickin' day.

We watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which I think you probably have to be into sushi (or at least eating fish) to enjoy.

I enjoyed leading the practice day yesterday. It wasn't perfect, but it was what I was able to offer. There is something about teaching which I really enjoy but I also find very challenging. It's not exactly the same as, but is perhaps derivative of, wanting to be liked. Yesterday I was not at all nervous which is unusual. I enjoyed being outwardly focused.

Someone gave me the book, The China Study, which essentially I think says to be vegan. I realized that while I don't think there's any more nutritional info that would be useful or news to me, I certainly need to be reminded about the importance of diet. Keeping very strictly low glycemic index - vegetables - whole grains - low fat might be beyond my capacity for discipline. And yet, these things are likely a big part of the reason I am still alive and relatively healthy.

Helpful chat with Danamaya about allergies/asthma. Tomorrow I'm going to buy a mattress cover and wipe my windows off with bleach. They are moldy (just on the inside). And see what effect that has. Also started vacuuming and dusting today but haven't gotten to my room yet.

Sorry if this post wasn't quite as riveting as you had hoped. Tired.

Friday, March 15, 2013

News in the last two days

Bay Bridge
Bill's mom went into hospice, as did another friend's mom. Allison and I will be teaching the MBSR class Wednesday.

Chris, my dad's wife of 30+ years, is getting a lung biopsy on Monday. 

My mom drove into a shopfront window. (No one harmed.) But she still plays tennis. 

I was coughing like crazy this morning, finally hacked up some bloody phlegm. (Very little blood, like one drop.) It's hard to cough up blood, it feels thick, it takes a lot of coughing! It occurs to me that at the moment I have the symptoms I was meant to look out for: fatigue, coughing, and coughing blood. (Other ones were weight loss and shortness of breath.) On the other hand everyone I talk to says they're tired, I tired from cancer, teaching, dust allergies, traveling? I've been traveling continually since October. The MBSR class on Weds, drop-in intro to meditation last night, practice day tomorrow (description below.) I don't know. It's all guesses. I'll go to a doctor if my cough stays this bad for a while. 


Sat, March 16, 9:30am to 3:30pm, led by Suvarnaprabha

Renunciation, or letting go, has long been an important part of the Buddhist tradition. While the idea may not sound exciting - perhaps reminding us of all the things we don't want to renounce - the practice is intrinsic to spiritual practice. Really, we let go in some way every time we meditate, each time we see, even in some small way, into our relationship to our world. It is part of how we know - and can relax in the knowing - that nothing and no one - are ours. Letting go, releasing our clenched fists, is what allows us to truly grow, give, understand, and love.

The day will be a mostly silent meditative and bodily exploration of letting go. We will do sitting meditation, some of which will be lightly guided, and other useful practices, such as a body awareness, chanting, and gentle movement.

Suvarnaprabha has been deeply interested in renunciation, relaxing, and letting go for a long time - especially since she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer over a year ago. She has taught courses and retreats at the SFBC for over ten years, as well as internationally and at SF County Jail. She also teaches meditation for stress reduction in the wider community. She is currently writing a memoir of the last year, exploring, among many other things, this practice day's themes.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


This is my head. As of yesterday. I owe it all to chemotherapy! Hair is slowly getting thicker and and darker. Might be wavier, too. I can't really tell 'cuz it's still so short.

Last time I got a haircut was 14 months ago (as shown in this post).

It's delightful having hair again, and I think it's better short.

On a different note, two friends have recommended the documentary, The Beautiful Truth. The written introduction to it makes me skeptical to say the least, but I shall try it.

Teaching the Stress Reduction class with Bill and Allison last night was good. I was really enjoying Bill's teaching. The class is 7-9:30 pm and I feel so tired during most of it I can barely function. (I don't think it's about how much sleep I get, because I get plenty and take naps when I need to. I think somehow it's the time. I can't think very well.) I have been thinking about looking into offering a class in the fall, but wonder if I have the energy for it.

My mom, who has Alzheimer's and lives in southern California, drove into a storefront window. Thankfully no one was hurt. Thankfully again, Laura's going to make sure she doesn't drive anymore. Whew. We're going down there for her 80th birthday in May.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Back by the Bay

Baby gator at Jean Lafitte Reserve
Some people got the impression that I didn't like New Orleans. I loved it. I liked the cultures and the history. I loved the food (just that it is  unhealthy, fattening, and not vegetarian!) I loved the Voodoo museum, the street car, wandering around, and our bicycle tour...

It's good to be home, too. All those cancer patients with their bucket lists. How do they find the energy?

Loads of summer plans floating around, which I won't go into until some of them settle down. A couple things I have said in the last few days have made me realize that I now think of myself as someone who's going to live for a few more years. A change I will regret? Can't do anything about having one idea or another about a life expectancy anyway. Except, maybe, get a CT scan.

Friday, March 8, 2013


Note: part of White Noise is about a pill that suppresses the fear of dying. It's a cool book!

Note: I know people rave on about the food in New Orleans. I see their point. It tastes good. But it is too much grease and meat and seafood, and tasty vegetables that are cooked into mush. (Laura and Jules had a $1 wager as to whether my side of green beans was from a can. I called the restaurant and asked last night - they were canned. It was not a cheap restaurant!) We had muffalettas for dinner the other night at the free concert in Lafayette Park - a sandwich on Italian sesame foccacia-like bread with olive oil, salami, not sure what kind of cheese, and chopped green olives. I had a bite of a Po'boy, and cup of gumbo. They were great, but it all starts to gross me out at some point. I miss vegetables and things not made with white flour and sugar and oil. They are my friend.

Note: We watched the first episode of the HBO series Treme ('Tre-MAY'). Our bicycle tour guide said it was incredibly accurate, which must have been why we didn't understand some of it. But it's a good show, look forward to watching the rest.

Note: There is a big pyramid among the square tombs in the St. Louis cemetery. It says only Omnia Ab Uno ("Everything From One") on it. No name. Turns out it belongs to Nicholas Cage! The shoplady who told us that seemed to despise him.

Okra in a bloody mary?
Laissez les bon temps roulez.
More notes on "belief"
I forgot to mention that there are two Americas in terms of childhood influences: One America ascribes to the religion of the rational mind, no spirituality of any kind, reliance on science, or on the popular media's version of science. For another America, belief in God, and I would say belief in general, is primary. In this mode of thinking, systems that aren't reliant on belief in an omniscient judge, or belief in general, are unfathomable. My background was more of the former, I probably don't need to say.

Lots of "Buddhist converts" get weirded out by ritual practices that remind them of Christianity, either because it's not 'rational' or, on a more emotional level, because it has negative associations. This is why much of Buddhism in the west has removed ritual elements and appears as completely secular. To the degree that people (who think they are being original) must often ask, Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? On the other hand, devotional practices aren't inherently useful; as I said in the last post, in Buddhism one's state of mind is primary.

Note: 11 hours sleep last night, and finally I do not wake up tired!

Note: We are having fun. (Quote from tour yesterday: New Orleans puts the 'fun' in 'funeral'!) Today is our last day in Louisiana. We rented a car and are driving to Jean Lafitte Park.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Travelogue, "Belief in" & voodoo (long post)

[photo by Julie Bennett]
We're all in New Orleans now - Paulette, Julie, Laura and I, in a groovy restored old house in Midcity, right next to the Canal Street streetcar.

Bourbon Street is revolting. Even just the smell of it, though I can't say what the smell is. It's an intense culture, if it can be called that, of in-your-face sex and booze. Eg. an old guy standing outside trying to get people into a bar had a t-shirt on that began, "My Tongue & Your Clit..." The bartender at the absinthe bar the other day said she chugs alcohol to get drunk because she doesn't like the taste of it. One is tempted to say The Big Sleazy instead of The Big Easy.

Pronunciation is difficult. Any given word that looks French is either pronounced with an American accent or a (more) French one. You have to hear how people say the word to know. For example, for beignet you say ben-YAY. But for Decatur street you say, Duh-KAY-der.

My favorite thing yesterday was the Voodoo Museum, run by a white guy/voodoo priest. He gives a little introductory lecture on the way in, debunking all information formerly and erroneously possessed. At first the museum just seemed like two little rooms full of...carvings, offerings, framed explanations of Voodoo, Marie Laveau, gris-gris, etc., plus dirt and dust. But then I felt something in there and I lingered for some time. For a while I was alone (the gals were all done and sitting outside) but in some way I did not feel like I was alone. I felt good in there.  I made an ritual offering into a gnarled dusty tree stump - a wish wrapped in some coins.

There's a little store (mostly handmade stuff) on the way out. I picked up something like what you would think of as a voodoo doll, but wasn't. Made mostly out of moss, they are meant as charms for wish fulfilment. I felt drawn to one and picked it up - the man said the one I chose was for impossible situations, for someone who is terminally ill.

Powdered sugar covers the floor
of Cafe Du Monde
We got into a conversation. He told me that 30 years ago he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Because cancer is so detectable now, I wonder if it's a thing that just comes and goes in human bodies in a way that doctors don't know about, which is why you hear so often things like, My cousin was told she had 2 minutes to live, etc., and it's been 10 years. You also hear about early detection for breast cancer causing more people to get treatment, some of whom don't need it. 

It seems like people tell me these stories (about outliving the doctors' predictions) because they want to inspire hope. It sometimes seems like they're saying, This happened to me, therefore it will happen to you. While it shows that it's possible to outlive a grim prognosis, this angle on things is not inspiring for me because it says absolutely nothing about the odds that I shall do so. What seems much more a sign for me, in particular, is my continuing good health. Though even that has only been three months so far (since the grim December CT scan.) 

He did talk in terms of "when it is your time" which I find kind of comforting. Not in a deterministic kind of way, i.e., that at 4pm on some particular date will absolutely be my time, more that at some point one's body is going to need to die, and no amount of juju or chemistry is going to change that. And, if it doesn't need to happen, it won't. 

Behind the bar (Bourbon St.)
He told me he has a 350 lb python upstairs that doesn't sleep in a cage but roams freely around his apartment. There was also a lady in the entryway with a very pretty baby ball python. I wish I had taken a picture of it. 

I know that many people think in terms of "believing in" something, or not. For instance, you could conclude, because I connected with the icons or whatever they are at the voodoo museum, that I "believe in" voodoo saints or magic. Some people can't think of spirituality in any other framework besides belief. This kind of langage is very strange to me. 

What does it mean to "believe in" God or saints or voodoo or bodhisattvas? For most people I think it means that one considers them to be real, 'independently existing' in a similar way, say, to a chair. I'm sure this is usually what is  meant when someone says, "I believe in God." 

[photo by Julie Bennett]
From one point of view, the voodoo museum was a few dirty rooms containing a bunch of inanimate lumps of wood and metal. That was not my point of view, though it makes sense to see it that way and I understand that.  

What feels right and natural for me at this point is to relate to the world - plants, objects - as if they had a presence of some kind. Not being a "materialist" (in the sense of seeing physical matter as the only reality, that everything can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena) doesn't mean I "believe in" ghosts or rebirth or Apollo. However I do have a strong sense of felt realities that do not exist under the purview of science. The rational mind is beautiful. We can understand so many things, we can have extremely complex and useful ideas, we can evaluate a situation and strategize, and this is a large part of what makes us uniquely human (though in many ways collectively speaking we are also idiots!)

Anyway. In addition to the rational mind, overdeveloped in many of us by our hyperrational, materialist culture, there are also...forces. Desires, instincts, hatreds, the unconscious--these are forces that simply exist. They can be thought of as within us - or beyond us - but in any case they are mostly not part of the rational mind. (It is in this realm where we perhaps discover the causes of the idiocy mentioned a few sentences back.) There are also other states of mind and attitudes - equanimity, love, clarity - that move beyond words, surpassing the rational mind. The rational mind is not to be disparaged; it is an important level of experience. It can't understand everything. As Hamlet says, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I want to relate to the world as alive. I suppose that's called animism, which will, again, be defined in terms of beliefs I don't have. There are energies that are not accessible to a self-centered, literal, contracted mind. I am interested in those energies and in cultivating a mind that is receptive to them. Sometimes they can influence. I don't care if what I am relating to is 'out there' or 'in here'; it doesn't matter.

What I believe is that the jumble of thoughts and beliefs that zoom around in our heads are not of primary importance. We are in fact hypnotized by our own thoughts, many of which don't do us any good at all. In fact they often make things more difficult than they need to be. I believe that what's important is what we do, and the mental states that motivate what we do. Everything else is, perhaps, as the Hebrew Bible says, vanity, striving after wind.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

On the Sunset Limited to Louisiana

There's not much of anything to do on a train with no wifi, except realize how big this country is. There hasn't been phone signal much of the time either. Earlier today we did get to walk around Houston for an hour with this nice kid from East L.A. We're arriving in New Orleans in...7 hours. Then at some point I'll be able to post this.

Taking the train was interesting in some ways, though I have missed some key parts of my usual routine, such as naps, meditation, and exercise! One needs a certain amount of physical space, or more creativity than I have, to do these things. This morning Laura slept in and I went to breakfast on my own. I sat across from a woman called Allison Armstrong and her daughter Annie. She does seminars on communication between men and women, has stuff on iTunes apparently. She was very cool. We talked about brain plasticity and she pointed out that imagining exercise has an effect too! It's interesting chatting with people in the dining car. Grandparents from Wisconsin, vegetarians from Salem, Oregon (who really reminded me of the folks on Portlandia!) Bought a cowboy type hat with a wide brim in El Paso.

Having a cold drink (with ice), or sorbet, makes me cough for about an hour. Strong scents, detergents - things lots of other people wouldn't  notice - make me sneeze or cough. Touchy. That's a word for how my body is now. Well.  My upper body. My lower body is...tight. Scarred. Temperamental? Maybe it's all touchy. None of it is a big deal in the grand scheme of things...I suppose it is a big deal to me, or an adjustment anyway. It's been over a year but I do not feel used to having a body that protests so much in response to ordinary situations (food, smells, air conditioning or heat...)

Dad is modeling the jacket I gave him (and got all
OCD about 'cuz I was worried it'd be too small) 
A point I may have made before: Lots of other people are already dealing with what I deal with now. I did not have access to this information before; apparently there are secret societies in which common health complaints are shared. People my age and younger, and of course older too, have achey lower backs, uncooperative bowels, overactive bladders, numb and cold feet, inflexible hips, problems with lady parts, and/or allergies and coughs and environmental sensitivities. The body, either late in life, or early, or some time between, requires maintenance, demands forethought, crumbles into a pile before the mind, forcing the mind to acknowledge it.

I read/Padmadhara sent me On Chisel Beach by Ian McEwan. It reminded me of certain aspects of my life in a surprising ways. Currently enjoying reading White Noise by Don Delillo (sent by Dhammagita.)

It was fun being at dad's for his 83rd birthday. He is a sweet old guy.

Friday, March 1, 2013

House on Fire

Here's the poem I wrote recently. Some of its influences include: our flat and its occasionally disabled smoke alarms, the carbon monoxide detector at the retreat center, John Giorno's poem "Suicide Sutra", and the Lotus Sutra.

House on Fire

It takes a while
To see the simplicity of
A sooner not later
Goodbye life

Ah, but here are
Alternatives to simple
As when one lies down
In a closed room
And smells smoke

Do I open the door?
Finish the book?
Scream for help?
How to overpower
My bewilderment

Again and again, I wake up.
The walls are hot.
No crashing, no sirens
Just a kind of wrongness
Unnoticed by
Public servants

The greatest
Nightmare is this, here
Watching the one episode
That burns, that gnaws
White eyes...

Now is too much to bear.

Terracotta soldier with himself
digitally colorized
[SF Asian Art Museum]
Here are two choices.
All of us must do one of them
Either the world is pried
From our fists
Or we let go
If only: of a sense of control
If only: of choosing my fate

In every now that I can find
The thing to let go of

Is me
One of the other things
Is you

My house
Caught fire
I stroll outside
With the sky