habit forming

I’ve always been a systems person. Some people think of it as habits. I have systems and I work them consistently—even when I was very little. It makes sense to me, and I like getting things done that way.

But a year ago, I was shaking as I looked into the future of a big surgery. Then all the things that came after that. All the things that I put my body through.

In ways I never had before, I let go of anything that wasn’t necessary. It took all I had to do the basics. The minimum took all I had.

Old habits fell away.

And now I’m coming up from the depths. I’m still not sure which way is up.

I had to take an online class for work, so I chose one on time management. An easy basic that I could do without thinking about it.

Until I was hearing the systems the teacher was pushing. I knew all this!
This was basic, stuff I was already and expert at.

Except.

I realized I’d lost my expertise. I’d put these skills down on the side of this road.

Can I pick it up again? Am I ready?

Questions must be asked.

Last week I walked a labyrinth. I’ve talked before about the joy I have in walking the twisted meditative path I find in a labyrinth.  Last time I walked one was before this cancer journey.

And this time, I went into the labyrinth and walked layers of time. While in the present, I remembered who I was the first time I walked it. I remembered the push and the urgency I felt, the drive to get THERE.

What is there has changed significantly. The surroundings have added so much to the way. 

I am thinking, these new old habits are changed too. I’m seeing how things fit together, now that I’ve experienced a different way of attacking my basics. 

New systems could replace automatic habits. 

Transformation

A marvelous part of my home is the gentle sunshine. Plants grow because we water them. Grass and flowers, vines and trees have a cycle I have watched for decades

My home in Alaska had plants, but not ones that we planted. The trees and shrubs came with. They self-planted and grew and watered themselves from the melted snow left behind over the summer.                      

Los Angeles County doesn’t leave water behind. We have watering systems.

And we have fruit trees we’ve planted. Citrus in particular, and I can see trees in neighbors yards and even my own. When they are in season, bright bulging fruit hang on the branches.

It’s still miraculous to me. Fruit trees were an impossible mystery to my young self.

Now I grow several different kinds. That means I have miracles within reach.

My orange tree is blossoming. It is covered with white buds, with a very few opened up into flowers that waft an extraordinary perfume.

I was there last season, when the blossoms came in. Then the petals fell and the tiny hard green spheres remained to swell all summer. Those that hung on to the tree became the succulent fruit for eating.

I look forward to those fruits. I talk to the tree and anticipate what kind of crop I will get each year.

I was there when the tree was planted. It was a slip of a tree, about 3 feet tall. Not a baby.

Not a seed.

I have grown plants from seeds. I think of cilantro seeds I’ve put in the ground. The tiny hard balls can sprout and grow into the leaves I like to put in my food.

It take a week or two…Or more…for those seeds to sprout. They come up in a two leaf combo, a little like arching rabbit ears. I didn’t expect that, because the harvested cilantro plants don’t look like that. The leaves look totally different. The first time I saw this sprout I pulled it because I thought it was a weed.

It didn’t look like I thought it would. I ruined the work I’d done in the intentional planting of the seeds because I thought I knew better.

I know they are miracles. An ordinary common miracle, and a miracle nonetheless. It speaks to me as I long for great things. I have ideas, dreams and desires. 

I’m trying to make progress toward those things. And I get in my way and ruin the progress. Hard as I try, I can’t know how everything will come out along the way. I have to leave room for what will come.

There are a lot of transformations between the seeds and the fruit. 

trying

The cancer fight has left me victorious. I went into something like a fugue state. Yes, I did other things. But my priorities were extremely focused. I had a battle that sapped my strength, but it was important enough to be the top precedence in any situation.

Then it was officially over. Nothing but checkups and a few prescriptions. Let the battle stay won!

After battles, it is well known that soldiers have trouble returning to civilian life. That’s where I’m at. I have been used to a situation in which life and death were part of every choice. The simplest things like food water and rest had to be fought for.

And now.

But now?

What now?

It is easy. Mostly. Is this how it used to be? Do I remember how it used to be? 

The nights of insomnia wishing the die-ease would end. Misty fantasies of strength and endurance—dreams of long strides of thoughtless grace and competence.

Was I kidding myself? Was I every really capable and strong?

More importantly, will I every be so in the future?

I aspire to ordinary.

Flashback

As a homeschooled teenager in Alaska, I had no one to compare myself to. Was I keeping up? Was I behind where I should be?

Was I at least ordinary? Then and now I was hoping I would be better than ordinary.

The song comes back to me, still popping up on the radio—the radio no longer forbidden to me now that I’m grown—Duran Duran on their comeback hit Ordinary World

What has happened to it all?

Crazy, some’d say

Where is the life that I recognise?

Gone away

But I won’t cry for yesterday

There’s an ordinary world

Somehow I have to find

And as I try to make my way

To the ordinary world

I will learn to survive

For months the song has haunted me with it’s lyrics. I made my choices with the dream of the ordinary world.

Big week of ordinary

It’s been a big week in my house.

It’s been an exciting week as I emerge from the poison into the normal. Normal life means I get to be part of the mass of humanity, rather than the dramatic star.

In the broader world, there were interesting days on the calendar.  Here’s the list

March 14th

March 15th

March 17th

March 14th as we write it here in America 3-14. That’s the first three digits of pi, that number we use to figure out the circumference and area of circles. Out town is a college town, and so we often have a pi day celebration. 

On thursday the 14th  Chris did an errand downtown and reported: “There was a line around the corner at the pizza place downtown,” 

Oh Yeah! Pi (or pie..or pizza pie) day. 

With this reminder, my coupon king husband found that more than one pizza place had coupons to celebrate. The excitement has spread from the math department to the marketing department.

So we got a pizza with a free personal pizza that Veronica got to take to school the next day. Pizza for days!

Importantly, Pizza leftover to the next day: March 15th.

That day in march known to the ancient romans as the ides of march. And to the slightly less ancient Elizabethan English audience of Shakespeare’s play Julius Ceasar, when they heard a creepy street oracle tell Julius “Beware the ides of March!” they understood. 

They knew that he knew what the oracle meant:

March 15th

What J. Caesar didn’t know and Shakespeare was foreshadowing was that his BEST FRIEND was gonna murder him that day.

Et tu, Brute? 

Even you, Brutus? 

Tragic betrayal that echoes down the centuries.

My husband said 

“We should have a Ceasar salad.”

We hear them in my household still, but the echoes are getting fainter.

Ceasar salad would go well with Pizza. I went down to trader joes to get a salad kit. 

The women at the checkout asked me how my day was going.

“It’s the ides of March. I had to get a ceasar salad,” I said with a smile.

Her face crinkled up “what?”

Ahh. The echoes had not reached her ears.

I told her a bit of the story—Shakespeare, Roman calendars, betrayals. 

She was listened, nodding, and hearing this new information. I ended with
“..and don’t listen to street oracles.”

She replied “That’s so interesting. And true! That happened to me—there was a street oracle in San Francisco this one time…”

But there was another customer waiting his turn and I wasn’t able to hear about the San Francisco street oracle.

And this takes me to Sunday: St Patrick’s day. The activity of this day is my daughter’s karate tournament. Not very irish. 

Then again, she’s competing as a green belt.

Structure

Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, found a pattern in how new ideas come to be accepted.

First there is the idea—the accepted idea that everyone knows is the standard. Common knowledge is another word for it. The science that society had come to accept and teach. The codified unquestioned way things are

Until someone has another idea. An idea that can be demonstrated. An idea that has proof and science behind it.

But the first idea a has society behind it. There is inertia in continuing to believe it. It’s working. Changing things is too hard.

Until more people come to see the proof of the new idea—the revolutionary idea. There is a

REVOLUTION

After some struggle, the new idea is adopted, and becomes accepted and taught. When it is prepared to be passed on, it gets packaged so it can be absorbed.

I am in the middle of a personal revolution. My life was thrown into a new reality last year. I wrestled with the new idea of who I was and what I could do.

I re-calibrated my expectations. I made it through.

Until now. The old idea is overthrown. Both of them.

My world is not what it was before the cancer.

It’s not what it was during the cancer treatment.

I spent all last year in the land of medical poisoning. I’m 3 months into the new year. To be fair, I was radioactive until a month ago. I’ve been dumped back into my life that I longed to return to.

I’m in the revolution. I’m casting about for a way to explain myself to myself.

I remember Kuhn. I’d like to find a structure to the chaos I feel.

Revolutions are messy. That is well-known.

King of the hill

It’s a kid game. Pick a high spot and shove everyone else off that pinnacle. Get to the high point! Be the one on top and triumph in the victory.  Be the king!

Until someone pushes me off and then I am no longer king. The top position changes so rapidly.

I’m in the position I longed for more than a year, undisputed victor in the war over cancer.

I Won!

Until the next thing comes along. And I am jockeying for the top position in another contest.

As uncomfortable as surgeries and chemo have been, at least I didn’t wonder if I was doing the right thing. I was very clear on my priorities.

Now that I’m on the other side, that clarity got a lot fuzzier.

I am thinking of a TV show I watched for a while “the Riches” had a scene. In a complicated case of mistaken identity, the main character in the head of a corporation. He is a swindler, but he asks the employees what their dreams are. In comparison to his unearned fortune, their requests are tiny. “My own parking place.”

What are my priorities now? I want to spend this hard-earned life well.

It’s worth a re-evaluation. What did I go through all that pain for? 

I just finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into Values

 This is the second reading of this amazing book and I can’t sum it up. But I can talk about this part:


The narrator is trying to find a method of scientifically capturing quality.

Also known as goodness or excellence.

How can you tell what is of good quality? Is there an objective measure?

He’s wrestling with the disparaging evaluation of quality.  “It’s just whatever you like.”

This bumps into my personal style guide: avoid the word just.

And Pirsig (the author) corrects that almost immediately. 

What if quality is whatever one likes?

It’s a mashup of science and hippie ethos. I can almost smell the vegan chili at the potluck.

Since I fought for this life I’ve been given, do I really get to decide what is worth my time based on what I like?

My perspective has changed, and I am willing to make greater space in my life for what I like just because—no—I will make greater space for what I like without needing additional reasons. 

I climbed the hill.

memories of the wild

I live in the suburbs. It’s very ordinary to me now, and it is the only thing my daughter has ever known.

But I grew up in the forest. Yes, a house with electricity, water and a road for us to drive on. It was even next to other houses. But across the street was the deep woods—the deep woods that didn’t have any houses in it.

This was Alaska after all, so they didn’t have to call it anything. It could just be the woods. Since we were on a road and therefore close to civilization, I think they did call it a forest preserve or some such.

We called it the woods. I spent time in the woods every day, so I knew a little bit about it. I knew how shallow my knowledge of it went. There was a lot more I knew I didn’t know.

When we drove to anchorage we crossed the rivers. In salmon spawning season the bald eagles would join the bears and eat the salmon that were dying in the water.  The eagles were impressive and rare.

But the ravens were not rare. They didn’t wait for salmon season. Now I think of them as huge. When I lived amoang them, they were just ravens. They were perched on the lightpoles in the grocery store parking lot, sometime speaking with their own caw or sometimes making eerie mimicking sounds.

They were smart and greedy. They’d find food and dive in. Or they might work together to get at what they wanted.

I’d seen the ravens on totem poles. It wasn’t until later that I learned to revere the sagas telling stories of the ravens and their wisdom.

It’s been a very long time since I lived close to ravens. 

I live in the suburbs.

Last week I saw a crow. Like a tiny raven, he hopped along the tame green lawn, poking at fallen tree branches—sticks—and keeping his eyes out for possibilities.

I wondered if he remembered his choices, and thought about his chances.

The suburbs have a thinner veneer of wild nature. But there is still a lot I don’t know.

how the story goes

The days have run out. 

I finished. I’m done with all the big cancer treatments. 

I am remembering the story of Jonah. He’s famous for being swallowed by a whale. But the whale wasn’t the end of the story. It was an interstitial adventure that happened while he was on his MISSION to go talk to Nineveh about how God was going to destroy them if they did not repent.

I’ve spend a year with very short horizons. Get through a surgery…Get through 4 doses of chemo…No, just this one dose. 

Ok, just this one day.

And then…

Jonah was in the whale for three nights. He didn’t know how long it would be. 

I was told how long my treatment would be. 

And now it’s over. I am cancer free.

Barfed up on the beach by my former prison, the whale.

What was I doing again? What was it that was so important that I lost sleep and plotted and planned? What were my dreams again?

That’s one story.

Then there was that other story, the one where Joshua got his army to march around the walls of Jericho. There was a formula for that one. He was supposed to march his army around the walls once a day, and on the seventh day go around seven times, blow the trumpet and THEN the walls would fall down.

I wonder if Joshua and his army were thinking about after the walls fell?

It’s a lot of tension. 

Will they fall? After seven days of nothing, and THEN they fall?

As the story goes, they walls fell down and they took the city. It was a bloody scene of victory.

I am now standing in the rubble of the wall. 

I don’t know if I’m the army or the rubble. Truly, I would like to be the victorious army. But I feel like a rubble.

When I was counting the days that remained I was imagining the feeling of victory. 

I knew I’d still be weak, but I was hoping I could shake it off. 

If I’m the rubble, I’ll have to have patience as I rebuild myself. If I’m the army, I can start yelling.

I really am both, so I’ll do both as best I can. It’s my story now.

hero’s journey

Since Friday I’ve ben radioactive. Truly all the way radioactive. They read me on a Geiger counter. I was disappointed that it didn’t click like it does in the movies.

Now I’m a sci fi action hero—on the hero’s journey like J. Campbell talks about. Leaving the nest…Kicked out to go find the magic I can bring back to save everyone.

Passed so many fairy tale tests along the way. Is this the last one? There is always another straw, so I dare not say it is the last. But I anticipate recovering my strength and capacity. Wise women who went before have told me it will return.

I miss being able to think. My mind is weak. Sci fi is a great genre for this experience. An old short story Flowers for Algernon. It’s a dark problematic story of how a mentally challenged young man gets some drugs that worked on a rat named Algernon to make him smarter. He gets genius level and then loses it.

He once understood things. Once upon a time he was extraordinary.

And I feel it. I feel the weight I am carrying I as I try to remember and think clearly. I can’t. I can’t yet.  

Some things yes. 

It also depends on whether things line up. How much pain am I in? Will I get a good night’s sleep? Will I have the right size of task to warm up on? Will I get the right food and also not be upset in a way that saps my energy?

I started to read a beautiful book Zen and the art of Motorcycle maintenance again, and the writing was so painfully beautiful I had to stop.  I can’t bear it right now.

Is this part of what it’s like to be 80? What I talked about here?

So I’m re-reading The Expanse, and I started in on the second book Caliban’s War.  Sci fi novel made into a TV show, categorically easy reading.

In the first parts of the book, Praxidike Meng joins Holden’s crew on the broken Ganymede landscape after a desperate, starved  and unfruitful search for his daughter. They feed him. And this bit of the story is written out:

Over the course of hours, his mind started coming back. It felt like waking up over and over without falling asleep in between. Sitting in the hold of Holden’s ship, he’d find himself noticing the shift in his cognition—how much more clearly he could think and how good it felt to come back to himself. And then a few minutes later, some set of sugar deprived ganglia would struggle back to function and it would all happen again. And with every step back toward real consciousness he felt the drive growing

I know I am not myself right now. I am more tired than I was during chemo. I have flashes of clear thinking capacity that quiver and collapse under the load.

The man/boy in Flowers for Algernon and my circumstances also remind me of John Stuart Mill’s pig. Do you remember John Stuart Mill’s pig? In his classic age-of-enlightenment essay Utilitarianism ?


“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” 

I am not a child. I know both sides of it. I am a human being dissastified. And I worry that maybe I’ll never get it back

Updike’s Rabbt Run comes to mind:

“after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate.”

Now that I’ve found that quote I remember how I dislike that character. There was nothing about him I wanted to emulate, except how he crafted words around his complaints. And that was the author anyway.

I’ll go back and get it right..This maudlin isn’t helping. Alfred Lord Tennyson has what I need:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

That I can do.. I shall not yield.

science non fiction

Just finished reading A Brave New World. I haven’t talked about books in a while, but they are still with me.

Here’s the list of books I read last year. These medical treatments are suppressing my thinking skills, so my books are a lot fluffier this year. I read vampire and werewolf books for the first time this year, for example.

But there was this online book club part of the phetasy community, and we chose Huxley so I read it. 

During the book discussion, someone was wondering if this book counted as Science Fiction. OOOH! Literary theory?! Strap in! we are going there

Science fiction can be a lot of things, but one trend in the sci fi novel is universe building where at a rule is changed. Then the events of the novel proceeds from that change. There is a famous short story where time travel is invented, and the traveller goes back in time and accidentally steps on the first and only butterfly. He returns to his present time to discover that his action has prevented the future (his present) from including butterflies. The culture has morphed in ways only the time traveller sees. 

IF the world has no butterflies, what else would be true?

I remember that game in my improve classes. In the book club, Bridget Phetasy is a stand up comedian and she said that’s part of developing stand up.

If this is true, what else is true?


And what else is not true?

Brave New World seems to be exploring the idea of a world in which reproduction is asexual. Many people find the world Huxley created to be compelling.

In my world, it is true that I am impaired in a medically induced way.

What else is true?

What are the borders of my science non fiction?

I am weak. I am tired. I remember things with an effort (..what was the name of that one person I’m supposed to call?)

Today, I sit in the limbo of my last thyroid medical treatment being scheduled. It was planned for last Friday, but that had to be pushed into the future because the numbers weren’t high enough. The numbers might still be too low. Which means I may have to remain in this medically impaired state for even longer.

I cried when it was rescheduled the first time. It may be rescheduled again.

Ok.

What else is true?

How weak am I? can I walk around the block? Sometimes. 

Can I still think enough to write my weekly substack?

It appears I can today, if I have a nap beforehand.

Towards the end of the day, I am weaker and less able.

What else is true?

It is true that I don’t know when that treatment will take place. But it will take place and it will be done at some point.

It is also true that I get to explore the borders of my universe with an eye towards adventure and see what the possibilities could be.