From an interview with Kurt Vonnegut in the Guardian:
“Q. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A. Imagining that something somewhere wants us to like it here
Q. What is your favorite smell?
A. That which comes out the backdoor of a bakery.
Q. When and where were you the happiest?
A. About ten years ago my Finnish publisher took me to a little inn on the edge of the permafrost in his country. We took a walk and found frozen ripe blueberries on bushes. We thawed them in our mouths. It was as though something somewhere wanted us to like it here.”
Lump in my neck. That is how it started. How does it finish? I don’t know yet. I am at the beginning.
I can tell you what happened today. A man stuck an intravenous in my arm, already blossomed with purple bruises. I winced.
“Sorry about that. You won’t feel this part at all,” he said, and plunged a syringe full of a radioactive isotope into my vein.
“Come back after your lunch, and we’ll do the bone scans.”
The cancer in my thyroid is spreading fast, and the bone scan is one of two tests that will tell me, before surgery, how far the confused cell has traveled towards the ends of me. It will tell how much to hope. If it slipped through the mesh of defenses my body had to slow such mistakes, traveled to my liver or bones or brain, not even science will catch it.
“Ok,” I said. “See you in a few hours.”
So here I sit, in those interceding hours, writing to you about what it means to be whole. It’s Ok. I still feel qualified, not only because I am an MD, but because “healing”, this month’s theme at CEC, is not a place we arrive at; it is only and ever the road.
I’ve walked it in different ways. On behalf of others thousands of times, in other countries, in Toronto’s inner-city ER. In pursuit of relief myself, each and every step since I could stand. There is no other road to be on. It is all we are here to do, heal ourselves whole, and once we’re there, in that temporary and ephemeral space, give others opportunity to do the same. I’m careful here to say create “opportunity” for others, rather than to “help” them. The latter creates, in my opinion, a false hierarchy. Beware the person who tells you how much they can help you; they want something of you. Embrace the one who steadfastly works on the conditions that allow for healing to occur, for they have more than themselves in mind.
COVID-19 highlights some of these conditions well. In that way, it is more than a virus, or pandemic; it is a global bone scan, showing weak spots. In our care of the elderly, the precariously housed, our treatment of animals and the abandonment of a thriving ecology as necessary for health. If we are to truly heal from it, it will not be by vaccine. It will be by being honest about where we hurt, so we can turn the bright light of attention towards where we most need to go.
We sit for these two reasons: insight and growth. They are intercalated, connected at all levels, forever wedded. As we become more clear about our experience through the practice of meditation, an answer emerges to move us closer to our fullest expression yet. It is, in my experience, the surest way to navigate a road full of twists that disappears at our feet: listen in the moment to what is buzzing through us, endlessly repairing. Then, trust.
The guidance we receive is not in words, or not only. It can be felt in the deep rejuvenation of rest, the clinches of subtle misgivings, a glimmer of kindness that lights a way when all seems lost. There is something in us that wants us to be well, and pulls us towards ever greater notions of what wholeness means.
Why would we want to be whole in the first place? Easy. So we can throw a party that includes every single person, no matter who they are, no matter what they look like. We heal because it leads to the most fun. There is no way it would be worth it otherwise. If you were as kind-hearted as the Buddha, you would invite all living things, but we’ll leave them implied for now, lest it seem too impossible. Trust, when you are at this epic endless party, outplaying your elderly Turkish badminton opponent so hard his fez falls off, and see a sad squirrel off to the side, you won’t continue without at least trying to cheer her up with a peanut.
The radioisotope moving through my body is called Technetium. It is the first element ever synthesized on earth without being discovered here. Since then it has been made in great quantities to find places in our bones where a cancer might be hiding. While the world can seem unpredictable, at times even cruel, there is something to pull elements from where there were none, and puts them in our hands. Something that wants us to like it here.
I went back upstairs for the scans, and watched my skeleton pixelate on the screen above me. I thought I saw a bright spot in my spine. Oh no.
“I need to get the radiologist,” the technician said.
Of course. The worst. They called me into the reading room.
“Looks good to me,” the radiologist said, moving through the images.
“What? Isn’t there a bright spot in my thoracic spine?”
He moved back a screen.
“Your shoulder blades. From this angle, they appear more dense.”
“Wonderful,” I said, told him about my sickness. He showed me his thyroid incision, and a neck scarred with radiation. We talked about our love of travel, and books. If I make it through, I said, you should come with me to Mongolia.
“Not if,” he said. “When.”
The road to that party, the one with the badminton and hangry squirrels, we walk together and is traveled in lifetimes. We’ll throw it on the day every single person on the planet knows they will be cared for with kindness and love in their home until they die, no matter what. Until then, trust that every step we take is in search of that direction, whether we know it or not. Minute by minute, it draws ever closer.
And hey, here’s nothing to say we can’t have some practice parties along the way.