Friday, April 25, 2008

"Beautiful" carcinoma

On Wednesday, my husband Richard watched on a monitor as a doctor maneuvered a tiny scope into his bladder to look at the mass revealed by a CT scan he had last week. (He's been peeing blood for weeks now, with no other signs of illness. After extensive testing, he was referred for a CT scan, and then this cystoscopy.) When the papillary carcinoma - a tumor caused by bladder cancer - came into view, Richard, ever the artist, described it as "beautiful."

"It's on a narrow stalk," he said later as we walked hand and hand under old trees in one of our favorite Denver neighborhoods, "and the doctor called it a sea anenome, but that's not quite right. It's too - I don't know, filmy."

"A sea pen?" I suggested, and he nodded.

"It's got these tissue-thin 'petals' at the top of the stalk, and I could see them waving gently in the current in my bladder." He stopped to admire the calligraphy of two redbud trees across the way, their spare branches painted in intense pink bloom, and the explosion of yellow flowers on a forsythia bush.

"It's a lovely color, too," he said. "It's really beautiful."

"You should draw it," I said.

"I might."

We got into the car and headed west through Denver, past the suburbs that sprawl right up to where the mountains muscle out of the Plains, and wound uphill in a rocky canyon on our way to the first of three mountain passes we would cross on our drive home. As I drove, I thought about cancer and the beauty Richard could see in this tumor.

My dictionary defines cancer as "the disease caused by uncontrolled division of abnormal cells." It traces the word to the Greek karkinos, or "crab," perhaps because the swollen veins supplying tumors looked like crabs' legs. What the dictionary doesn't say is that those "abnormal" cells are your own tissue with the factors that normally limit cell division turned off or blocked.

Cancers vary enormously, but what they have in common is uncontrolled growth, and the fact that the cells that divide without limit are our own cells - not strangers or foreigners. Richard's bladder tumor is simply bladder cells that have lost their ability to stop multiplying. His cancer is thus an intimate part of him. Unwanted, with potentially serious consequences - but still Richard.

So I can see embracing this sea-pen delicate tumor as part of one's self. But beautiful? That's a stretch for me.

On the drive to Denver, we saw a flock of about 50 white pelicans tracing the looping meanders of a hot-spring-fed stream through the grasslands of South Park. Watching the birds rise out of the grass on white wings edged with crisp black and flap with deliberate strokes, cupping the air, I felt the chill air rush through feathers. That's beauty. Winding our way back through the mountains on our way home, we passed two bighorn sheep grazing on new green grass right beside the highway, their winter coats shedding in shaggy hunks of fur. Those sheep looked like part of the landscape, their muscles chisled like stone, their pelage colored just like the weathered granitic boulders around them. That's beauty too.

Richard was born when the sun traveled in Cancer, the constellation named for the Crab in the myth of Hercules. The constellation was rising over the horizon at the time of his birth as well. Perhaps as a Cancer, he can see things about his namesake illness that I cannot see.

I know this: his company in my days is a blessing. I'm learning to appreciate every moment we have. That's beauty too.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Chasing spring and picking up roadkill

Two weeks ago, Richard and I set off on what turned into a 4,400-mile drive, chasing spring across the Great Basin to the Pacific Coast. The first four days were a birthday gift to my 78-year-old mother, who asked for "spring" as her gift. So we planned a tour around the red-rock country of far western Colorado, the low elevations where spring has already arrived - a catered tour, mind you, complete with picnic meals I made myself and history and natural history interpretation, informed by my research for Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, due out this fall.

After dropping my folks in Grand Junction to catch their train back to Denver, Richard and I set out on our own tour, taking Highway 50 across the inland West. We
ended up only going as far as Moab the first night, following the scenic road along the Colorado River from Cisco instead of the interstate. We discovered spring wildflowers in the red sand desert along Onion Creek. (That's a crescent pod milkvetch with pink flowers that positively shimmer in the evening light.)

The next morning we discovered Arches Book Company - we already knew its sister store across the street, Back of Beyond Books, which has one of the best selections on the slickrock country in existence. We met store owner Andy Nettell, who also happens to be president of Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association, a trade group dear to my heart because they nurture local authors and local books.

Then it was time to get serious about heading west, first on I-70 across the San Rafael Swell, one of the most dramatic and wonderfully lonely features of the Colorado Plateau, and then on Highway 50 across the Great Basin Desert. We chased snow showers and dust devils, ogled mountain ranges rising like waves out of the shrub desert basins, spotted abandoned mines and desert marshes, and saw elk resting, golden eagles soaring, and pronghorn racing their shadows.

The mountain ranges were still white-crested with snow, and the basins were just beginning to green up. The night skies were dazzling, littered with stars, and the air was crisp and so fresh that breathing it was like a cleanse.

It was a breath-taking trip, a pause in what has been a crazy year-and-some of work for me, a time to think beyond next week's deadline. And a reminder of why I write: to give voice to those whose lives and voices we have forgotten how to hear.

Coming over a rocky summit between two lonely basins, Richard spotted a hawk lying on the roadside, just off the pavement. He thought its head moved, so he pulled a quick U-turn and drove back. And there on the gravel shoulder, inches from the roar of passing traffic was a gorgeous adult red-tailed hawk.

The bird lay on its belly, the wings that span four feet in the air folded at awkward angles, flapping loosely in the backwash of passing vehicles. The hawk was alive, but immobile, its spine broken. It stared at us out of the fierce dark golden eyes, able to blink and move its feathered head, but nothing else. There was nothing we could do but move it away from the road.

We got a blanket from the car and Richard wrapped the hawk in it, and then he carried that hawk - so light for such a great bird! - off the roadside. He laid the broken bird in the thin shade of a sagebrush. And then we stood for a long moment, tears running down both our faces, saying goodbye to the hawk that was beyond help.

I've picked up roadkill for decades. I believe in stopping to move the broken bodies out of harm's way as a sign of respect. It allows them to decay in peace and thus feed other lives in the doing. It's been my ritual of atonement for the harm we humans do with our thoughtless lives.

But never in all of that time, with all of the bodies I've handled, have I felt so helpless as I did leaving that red-tailed hawk, broken by a collision with a speeding vehicle, and still so fierce, so vital. I don't grieve leaving the hawk there to die - moving it into the desert to dream its dreams in peace was the kindest thing to do. I grieve how it died, the completely unnecessary loss of its unique and individual life.

I hope that the hawk we laid gently in the shade of the sagebrush away from the traffic that killed it passed peacefully into dreams of free flight under the spring sun. In my dreams, the world has room for red-tailed hawks like that bird to fly free - without ending up immobile on the side of the highway, wings crumpled and flapping loosely, backs broken.

Tonight, I can't write past that hawk. Perhaps in another day's entry, I'll continue the journey we began.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Earth Hour every day

Earth Hour, the hour-long, worldwide symbolic gesture of turning off non-essential lights and appliances to draw attention to the need to slow global climate change, found Richard and I, along with my parents, in the red-rock canyon country of far western Colorado. We were about 60 miles from Arches National Park as the crow flies, but several hours by road in that remote and rugged landscape. We celebrated our own Earth Hour in a small casita with red rock mesas rising all around.

As the light fell, a flock of mountain bluebirds flew into the cottonwoods on the slope above us, their twittering seeming to usher in the dusk. We stood on the doorstep of our cabin, listening to the evening.

"There goes a bat!" exclaimed my 78-year-old mother.

I looked up, and a tiny Myotis (mouse-like) bat fluttered through the air above the gravel road , its translucent wings cupping the air in its own rhythm as tiny flying mammal chased mosquitoes and other spring insects. Another bat fluttered into view, and then another.

Three distant ravens began a croaking call-and-response conversation that echoed off the soaring cliff walls, and a screech owl called once from down by the Dolores River.

Whenever we stop like this to listen to the pulse of nature and the sounds of other species, we witness a kind of magic, a glimpse of the force that impels life. If we had been inside our casita with the blinds drawn, we would have missed it.

But because we were observing Earth Hour we were outside on the door stoop. We were present to see and hear the community of the land change shifts to its night time rounds. We set aside our lives and remembered that humans are only one among many species, and not the most important either.

That kind of reverent participation in the business of "life living itself" in Kathleen Dean Moore's words (from her powerful essay, "The Marsh" in Holdfast) is something we can do every day. We could call it "Earth Moment." It doesn't take an hour, just a few minutes of awareness. It doesn't require special training or knowledge or equipment, just going outside and opening ourselves up to the sounds and sights and smells of other lives. It's about being aware, and giving our attention to our neighbors, the millions of other species that green and animate this planet. The plants whose breath gives us oxygen, whose food-making gives us the sugars that nurture all living cells. The animals whose flesh nurtures our own, the bats and butterflies and flowers and rocks who touch our hearts with the beauty of their presence in the landscapes we share.

Such "Earth Moments" can nurture our heads and hearts, and fill our souls with peace. With grace, with joy. To observe an Earth Moment is to engage in living prayer, as the poet Mary Oliver writes in Thirst,
. . . the doorway
into thanks, and a silence
into which another voice may speak.
It's like falling in love with life all over again.

For more ideas on returning reverence and creativity to your daily life, read Janet Riehl's "village wisdom for the 21st century." In honor of National Poetry Month, she's running a poem a day.