I spent Saturday in Philadelphia with my longtime friend and mentor, Ski. I hoped to talk with him about my worsening medical situation. I wasn't seeking advice necessarily, but I always find that when he and I discuss something, I invariably walk away with a deeper understanding of the matter at hand.
We skirted the topic of my health. The crux of the conversation was Ski asking me if I believed in reincarnation. I have no idea what happens after death, I answered. I neither believe nor disbelieve in reincarnation. "You will," he said.
We wound up going to a big chess tournament at a Center City hotel where I met old acquaintances, made new ones and took photos of people engrossed in pitched battles fought over 64 squares.
Coming out of the tournament, Ski and I discovered that my car had been towed. I swear, that car is a magnet for the parking authorities.
I came to Philadelphia wanting to talk with Ski about mortality, perhaps seeking advice even though I wasn't aware of such an intention. We instead went to a chess tournament and my car was towed and I spent a couple hours getting it back, paying $125 cash for the tow and owing $41 for the fine.
And perhaps therein lies the answer: Life goes on.
On this day in 2005, I began this blog as a chronicle of my fight against parathyroid cancer. It quickly grew into much more than that. It became an outlet for my poetry, photography and random thoughts. And it also has served its original purpose of detailing my ups and downs, and will continue to do so.
To my regular readers, thank you sincerely for sticking with me these two years. To my newer readers, welcome aboard. Speak up now and then.
I had a consultation this afternoon with the surgeon who performed my latest operation, in July. We have a very cordial relationship built upon mutual respect, and we indulge in precious little beating around the bush.
He told me that future surgeries at this point seem futile. As anxious as he is to help me, my body seems just as determined to destroy itself. My surgical history is a long, painful, expensive series of failures. For the record, I'm 0 for 5 over the past six years, 0 for 6 overall. As the surgeon put it, operations seem to help me for about 10 minutes, and then the situation reverts to what it was, and with a vengeance.
I expected this conclusion, in large part because I felt it within myself. It's not rocket science. I knew, especially after July's unsuccessful surgery, that we were reaching the point of diminishing returns.
Given the progression of the illness and its ability to thrive as well as it has, he said that it may well come to pass that I'll be incapacitated within six months. I'm not so sure about that timing. Especially if I have something to say about it. But, I agree that my joint pain, which has led to decreasing mobility, is going to prevail at some point, quite possibly sooner rather than later. And my headaches, which occur several times a day and can be debilitating, are likely here to stay, as they have now for years.
I'll learn to adapt to all that, hopefully. But what most scares me is that I'll lose my mental faculties. I need to live this, and to know that I'm living it. I need to be aware. This is important.
My doctors and I are going to explore the possibility of radiation therapy, knowing from the start that this cancer doesn't respond well, if at all, to radiation. But because the therapy won't do much damage, we have little to lose.
The focus now is on making me as comfortable as modern medicine can, and keeping pain at manageable levels.
A friend suggested I get a second opinion, even a third. But my surgeon is one of the world's top specialists in this disease, and I have the best minds at two of the world's leading hospitals employing everything but alchemy to try to help me. And alchemy may come next.
Sure, I could go around to different doctors until I find one who tells me what I want to hear, but one of my mentors has a term for that: mind-fucking one's self. The indelicate imagery is dead-on. Reality is what it is, whether or not you accept it.
Tonight, I spoke to a friend of mine who is a Zen priest. I plan to receive the Buddhist precepts from her within a month or two, forgoing the usual year's preparation for what is called the jukai ceremony. I began the process a couple of years ago and got a few months into it before my laziness prevailed. Time was a luxury then. It isn't now.
I feel the need to declare my spiritual and philosophical beliefs as a way of addressing the tremendous doubt and sometimes paralyzing fear I feel within me. And the jukai ceremony certainly is a public declaration. Who knows, I may recant everything when my final moment arrives. Nonetheless, I think jukai will be useful. If I'm misleading myself about my motives for jukai, then my priest friend will be the first to tell me -- if I don't beat her to the punch.
I'm simultaneously comfortable with and terrified by the unknown. Maybe jukai is just me grasping at straws.
I'm not sure I've fully processed all that has happened this momentous day. It certainly has a dreamlike quality. I've gone over and over what was said by my doctor, what was said by me. At times, I've choked up and have felt tears form in my eyes. I also realize the inevitability of all of this -- for me, for you, for us all, and this gives me great comfort. Some very difficult and conflicting emotions are waging war within me now, and I hope peace and acceptance soon prevail.
This has been a difficult post to write, not at all the way I wanted it to come out. But life is like that.
I've been expecting you but not eagerly Won't you have some tea?
My friend and I were in an Upper East Side theater Saturday night watching "American Gangster."
This long, emotionally draining and extremely violent movie was reaching its bloody climax when a man sitting 20 feet away from us began shouting. "They [Russell Crowe's character] wouldn't be treating them [Denzel Washington's character] like that if they were white. White-ass motherf--kers."
"Shut the f--k up," yelled a theatergoer. "Make me," challenged the angry man.
And then one by one, the people sitting near this man began getting up and leaving the theater. The man stood up, setting off an even greater rush of people, only now they were running. "He's got a gun," one said.
My friend and I looked at each other for a split-second and then joined the rush.
On the way up the stairs a man casually asked me, "So, did he have a gun or not?" "Why don't you go ask him," I said.
My friend and I quickly walked to a Starbucks around the corner, joined by other theatergoers who likewise ducked into the first place they saw.
We stopped by the theater about an hour later. It apparently closed for the night after the incident. I asked some exiting staff how things ended. The man was "escorted out," one of them said. "But do you have your ticket stub? You can get a rain check for the movie."
I found this poem by Nanao Sakaki to be especially skillful. Sorry, the Wikipedia entry is in French. One interesting thing about his life is that while in the Japanese army in World War II, he saw on his radar screen the B-29 that minutes later dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. That's heavy stuff.
Just Sit Here
If you have time to chatter Read books If you have time to read Walk into mountain, desert and ocean If you have time to walk Sing songs and dance If you have time to dance Sit quietly, you Happy Lucky Idiot
Sometimes the most interesting, seemingly abstract thoughts come to me wrapped in the gossamer veil that floats between wakefulness and sleep. That seems to be when the good stuff bubbles to the top, unbidden.
Pick a dream from the catalog and wrap yourself in it then fade to black
The small town in Japan in which I lived, laughed, loved, hated, cried, struggled, languished and thrived for three years no longer exists. Physically, it's still there and is largely as I remember it, thanks to a recent bird's-eye view on Google Earth.
But its name has been stricken from Japan's roster of municipalities, a victim of a great nationwide consolidation of little villages and towns into bigger towns and cities, many complete with new names that sound sterile and squeaky clean because they're so new and pure and without baggage.
In 2006, Nosaka Town in Chiba Prefecture combined with Yokaichiba City to form Sosa City. And in the process, local lore was lost.
Nosaka was formed in 1954 through the consolidation of two villages, Noda and Sakae. The first two kanji, or Chinese characters, of those names were blended to create Nosaka. Yokaichiba, literally "eight day market," was named for the farmer's and tradesman's market held there on days ending in an 8. It, too, dates from 1954.
House entrance, Sawara City (now Katori City), Chiba Prefecture, Japan, 1997
Japan had tens of thousands of municipalities by the end of the Edo era in the mid-1860s, when the feudal period met its bloody demise. Those ranged from tiny villages of just a few homes to castle towns to great cities such as Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto. This dizzying hodgepodge has been winnowed down at intervals during the ensuing years so that now, just a few thousand distinct municipalities remain. There are fewer villages than ever.
I have no doubt that this consolidation, this simplification, this shedding of the past has cut some of the red tape that existed when there were more towns and villages, and has unquestionably saved money in the process.
But the connection to the past has suffered. Novels, poems, biographies, period accounts, lovers' secrets make reference to place names that exist only in memory, if at all. People have to qualify their answer when asked their hometown.
I'm sure it was like that in 1954, when Nosaka and Yokaichiba became strange new names, and in the great consolidations before that. But a place name ties you to the land because it personalizes what you see as both yours and shared. You are a part of this place, and these are your fellow townsfolk. This is where you cast your lot. This is where new life is brought into the world, and where souls are launched into eternity.
Reality is impermanence and impermanence is reality. It's not a difficult concept to understand, at least superficially. Feeling it in my bones, though, is another matter.