By Eva Saulitis
Yesterday, a big wind came out of the north. Gusts sledded down the bluff behind our house and dove into the forest canopy. Every tentatively holding-on yellow birch leaf got swept up and flung down. Standing at the sink, I watched the air outside the window turn kaleidoscopic. The spangled air whirled. The world williwawed in a yellow-gold storm. And then the air cleared, just a few leaves tipping this way and that, drifting to earth. By day’s end, the trees were mostly bare, while the grass was covered in a weave of yellows: amber, buff, straw, goldenrod, turmeric, ochre, agate, umber. The sky was bigger, more violet gray, taking up more space between branches. Wind blew wild through the night, and in the morning, though the temperature rose to fifty degrees, and the wind was calm, the season had changed, is changing still, in the ever-moving world.
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In Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, there’s a chapter called “Bardos and Other Realities.” On this morning after the day of leaf-fall, I open the book to that section because recently the Tibetan word “bardo” appeared in my life. Someone said it at a party the other night. We were standing in a garage eating pizzas we’d baked in a wood-fired oven when a man said he’d first heard the term in a film, “Dying to Know,” a documentary about the friendship of Ram Das and Timothy Leary. And then, he’d heard it again when his friend had dropped “bardo” casually into a phone conversation. “What are the chances of that?” he asked us. In bed that night, I was reading a story in a magazine, and there it was again, “bardo.”
It’s an ever-moving world, and yet sometimes, we seem to be pinpointed at some cosmic crossroads, and a new concept enters, then changes, our lives. A friend of mine says it’s the universe, keeping its appointments with us.
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In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “bardo” is defined as “a gap between the completion of one situation and the onset of another. Bar means ‘in between,’ and do means ‘suspended’ or ‘thrown.’ “
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In the ever-moving world inside our minds, we’re forever in transition. We venerate the idea of living in the moment, but we rarely slow down long enough to do it. The last week of my life, the first week of this October, something suddenly became very clear. It arrived, this knowing, like a poem, out of watching the leaves falling. We live our lives almost entirely by the future. And we don’t know until the future is torn away.
But from this moment where I sit today, tapping at the computer keyboard at the kitchen table, I realize I’m looking at life from the inside of a bubble, my own biome. It’s a very particular biome. I’m dying of breast cancer. Time no longer stretches forward from under my feet to the horizon—the future. Time—the unknown quantity I have left on earth, anyway—feels like a hoopskirt I wear, suspended from my hips, swaying, going with me wherever I go. Watching the leaves falling yesterday, my chest hurt. The dormant cycle of winter will give way. Next May, the forest will flush with green again. It could very well happen without me. Nothing is lost in the scenario of next spring except my anticipation of it, my own personal future tense, my taking that future for granted, that spring will come, and I’ll be here to see it. I know, but grief gusts in anyway.
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In June, a friend and I walked beneath a road-shaped opening in the green over-story of birches. I mused to him that I never saw birch saplings in this forest. When birches fell, no young ones grew to fill the gap. I worried for the future of this band of woods uncommon in southcentral Alaska, a region dominated by meadows, cottonwoods, spruce, and land cleared for houses with glorious views of Kachemak Bay and the glaciated mountains behind it. My friend explained that the birch forest was transitional. It would give way, eventually, to the climax forest of this place, which is spruce. In the 1990’s, most of the spruce forest on the Kenai Peninsula, including my town, was destroyed by a massive outbreak of spruce bark beetles. Scientists attributed the outbreak’s unprecedented scope (not the first in recorded history, but the worst) to a series of hot, dry summers, to a warming climate trend. In years after, fires swept through the landscapes of dead trees. Ecologists call this “disturbance.”
Fire, windstorm, drought, insect outbreak, cancer. They disrupt the ecosystem, what we come to rely on. Communities on the Kenai Peninsula grieved the loss of the forest. Children who grew up in the twilight and sap-scent and wind-sough of spruce returned home from college to grasslands studded with strangely sculpted snags, frozen in the position of their dying. Windstorms broke them. Homesteaders logged them and heated their homes. My husband and I sided our house with planks milled from their bodies. We knew the forest would someday grow back, but we would not live to see that climax forest again.
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This week I’ve felt immobilized by bouts of grief. It took those falling leaves to mobilize it, to identify the source of it. You might be thinking, well of course, grief. Of course it’s there for someone dying of cancer. Dying is letting go, increment by increment, of everything that has constituted your life. And when you think about it, that is a good description of living through time, shedding things, from a placenta nub to baby teeth to adolescence to menstruation. But when you die of cancer, death takes on definite form. Wind is invisible until a rush of falling leaves gives it form. We suddenly see the swirling, breathing motion of wind. We suddenly see the end of things.
With a terminal diagnosis, you get a certain measure of time to say goodbyes, to make amends, or to let go of what can’t be amended. What matters most becomes acutely clear, and you shed extraneous things fast, like that windstorm yesterday: the leaves were going to fall. But without the wind, they might have lingered up there for another week. Sometimes you grieve in anticipation of letting go. Shopping with a girlfriend the other day, I sat on a bench in front of a display of shoes and boots while she tried on jeans. My abdomen was stretched by cancer-fluid; I felt imprisoned in my body. My eyes roved the wall, landing on an ankle-high boot in a pleasing shade of spruce-green. I imagined wearing them with this or that pair of pants. I even checked out the price. But there was no impulse to try them on. Why buy a pair of boots I’d wear for perhaps a matter of months? What does a dying woman need with new boots? Why spend $174 on a thing? Dying is letting go of things, turning toward intangibles, right? I grieved for the way I used to live my life, blithely accumulating boots and baskets and books without a second thought. I grieved the things of this world. I grieved my bootless, bodiless future, the loss of a future in which boots mattered.
Sometimes grief doesn’t attach itself to anything in particular, and it simply descends. It’s weighted, not like leaves but like ash-fall. Watching the trees get stripped, I grieved not for living beings, or things, or places, but for what holds all of it: the completely illusory idea of the future.
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Physicists in the 1930’s identified a “ghost particle” accompanying electrons—the neutrino. A byproduct of radioactive decay, neutrinos generated by nuclear reactions on the sun stream through the earth, our bodies, animal bodies, all matter, at a rate of billions per second, unseen. Without neutrinos, there would be no sunlight, no us. They are streaming through my hands, through the birch leaves, through the trunks and branches, through my cancer, and yet physicists little understand them, and the more they plumb, the more mysteries open outward. Writer Kent Meyers, in a 2015 article on neutrino researchers in The Atlantic, writes “I began to think of neutrinos and dark matter as whispers: the most intimate messages of the universe’s voice, carrying its closest secrets to ears that are all but deaf—or perhaps more accurately, immune, because so other-natured.” Everything, everything, is moving.
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Lately I’ve been watching a Steller’s jay come once a day to my deck to feed on sunflower seeds I scatter on the railing. The jay stabs the seeds into one of my planters, which is made of a straw-like substance, storing them for leaner times—for a future.
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Sogyal Rinpoche writes: “We can divide the whole of our existence into four realities: life, dying and death, after-death, and rebirth. These are the Four Bardos:
the ‘natural’ bardo of this life
the ‘painful’ bardo of dying
the ‘luminous’ bardo of dharmata
the ‘karmic’ bardo of becoming”
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The experience of cancer has been a kind of bardo. Since cancer, I have lived my life in the presence of death. For two and a half years since my cancer came back in the lining of my right lung, then the lining of my abdomen and heart, I’ve undergone various treatments to slow or temporarily halt the cancer’s progression. When one treatment stops working, another is tried. In breast cancer chat rooms, women post comments and following their first name, you can see below it a list. It is the timeline, the abbreviated story, of their disease, the dates of its arrival and progress, and of the progression of treatment. The list begins with date of cancer diagnosis. The list does not begin with a birth date for the life of the woman, but a birth date for the life of her cancer. It is almost as though you’ve been reborn as a body with cancer, identity tied to its chronology. Here, for example, is how my cancer bio would look if I joined such a chat room:
Dx 04/10, Stage IIB, 2 cm, 5/15+ nodes, ER+/PR+, Her2-, 5/13 Stage IV, dx mets to right lung pleura, ER-/PR-, Her2 equivocal
Surgery 5/12/2010 Mastectomy: Right
Chemotherapy 6/1/2010 AC + T
Radiation 10/15/2010 Breast
Hormonal Therapy 10/15/2010 Arimidex
Chemotherapy: 8/2013 Xeloda
Chemotherapy: 3/2014 Vinorelbine
Targeted Therapy: 3/2014 Herceptin
Chemotherapy 10/2014 Carboplatin + Taxol
Chemotherapy 8/2015 Kadcycla
There is movement here, but just looking at the list I feel claustrophobic, as though it seeks to trap me in its narrowly defined narrative—a story of me with cancer. The other day a friend asked if I’d checked to see if there were any innovative treatments for breast cancer available in Canada. I could devote my life to turning over every stone, and some people do. When I step back and imagine myself doing so, I see a woman circling a patch of dry ground, her eyes focused downward, stooping to tip over a stone, or kicking it over with her boot-tip, spiraling toward a center that never arrives. I want to live, and meanwhile, the stream of neutrinos flows past and through me, on and on.
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The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying describes a foreign notion of dealing with physical suffering. Physical suffering creates a bearing down, a narrowing of perspective, until I am a captive in my body. The other night, my belly hurting after a meal with friends, feeling as though I’d swallowed not the Moroccan lentils but the forks and knives, I crawled into bed and opened the book. It described the practice of Tonglen. In our contemporary culture, we’re encouraged to draw boundaries. We’re scolded for martyring ourselves, for taking on the pain of others. Listen, we’re told, don’t absorb. As a child, raised in a Catholic home, I knew nothing of contemporary psychology. When my sister had a migraine headache, I prayed God would give it to me. Jesus, afterall, died for my sins. The Tibetan Buddhists express it differently. In Tonglen meditation, you imagine everyone on the earth who is suffering in a similar way as you, and you imagine breathing in all of their suffering, melding their tumors and their pain with yours, and breathing out healing to them. Breathing in pain, breathing out healing. You dedicate your personal suffering to the end of all suffering. I tried it. I imagined others with metastases like mine, lesions oozing fluid into their abdominal cavities, caking up their intestines, wrapping around their stomachs. I imagined all of us in our beds at the same time. I felt myself move out from my body, expand out of my personal story. Instead of feeling a growing burden, a burgeoning tumor load, I felt more space. When I stopped pushing it away, my pain opened, broke apart, like the autumn forest canopy after wind, fragments of sky bounded by the thinnest of branches.
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The state the Tibetan Buddhists call “the natural bardo of this life” begins with birth and ends with dying. It’s a transition from one transition to another transition, endlessly moving.
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In art, I love the way form contains, compresses, holds, bounds. In an ever-moving word, we crave order: four seasons, four bardos, poems composed of couplets or quatrains, villanelles, sonnets, the seventeen syllables of a haiku. In high school, my piano and oboe teachers introduced me to the sonata, often a four-movement composition. It’s interesting how audiences so want to clap at the end of a sonata movement, even though the conductor keeps his one hand raised as he turns the page, even though the program lists the four parts as making up the whole. A movement ends with what sounds to us like resolution. We anticipate it—that sense of ending. The sonata is unresolved until the close of the last movement. It’s uncomfortable to sit in the gap of silence between them. Studying poetry, I learned that half the poem was found in the silence. Robert Bly calls a poetry of intentional gaps “leaping poetry.” The magic, the secret, is in those gaps, as much as it is in the words we land upon.
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My therapist, who’s worked with me for the last five years, since the beginning of my cancer bardo, told me the other day that I must slow way down. “Make a moment into an hour,” she said. “Make an hour last a week.” Make a moment into a movement, I think. When around me, people live in the future, this is not easy to do. In the bardo of living, the future shapes our days, not the moment. We save, we plan, we bank on tomorrow, we mark dates in our calendars, we anticipate endpoints to projects and travel dates and submission deadlines. While we cut lemon cucumbers for refrigerator pickles, we anticipate picking up our daughter, taking her to tea after school lets out. We imagine the crunch of the pickle in the mouth of our son, the bitten pickle held in a paper towel as he stands before his math homework. The future creates form for us, and purpose. The moment is the boundless space.
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This afternoon, the wind picks up again, and it swirls the leaves lying on the ground and on our deck. The leaves that remain high in the trees stubbornly cling. The alders that ring our yard remain green. Eventually, those leaves will wither on the branch, and clatter to the frozen ground. The wind has shifted to the southwest, and it drovers gray, light-backed clouds in a steady progression over the bluff and across the peninsula. The clouds seem to come from some endless source, out over the Gulf of Alaska.
Winters, I’ve watched an oval of nearly tropical blue seem to form far out past the snow-covered peaks. It is the far edge of a cloudbank or weather front. I’ve longed for my body to be able to follow my eyes to find its source, out of whatever darkness fills me. I long for that clarity, though I will never get there. The future is a place past the bounds of my own self.
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“One of the central characteristics of the bardos is that they are periods of deep uncertainty,” writes Sogyal Rinpoche. The bardo is “a continuous, unnerving oscillation between clarity and confusion, bewilderment and insight, certainty and uncertainty, sanity and insanity.” He says that these oscillations create “gaps,” spaces where “flowering” or transformation can occur. Instead, we move from event to event, passing right over the gaps. In the days when I felt immobilized by my grief at dying, when I felt outside of time, the future-driven human project, I lost my motivation, and it scared me. Everything slowed down, yes, but in a way that made me unable to get up off the couch except by force of will and inner scolding. Push through it, a voice in my head nagged. My time was running out, and I was filling it with nothing. I was in the gap, but unable to recognize it. I sat staring out the window for hours, watching the comings and goings of birds who ate down all the seeds I sprinkled out in a matter of hours. I rousted myself to give them more. If I couldn’t participate in the project of furiously living on my own borrowed time, I could support it in other beings, make some small contribution to the whole endeavor: the frantic, gorgeous, agonizing bardo of living.
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In all seasons, I’ve sat at this kitchen table writing, looking up to watch light changing on a mountain, Grace Ridge, visible in an opening in the birch forest. One fall, I photographed the mountain every day, even when it was obscured by storm clouds. It was like the mezuzah in my friend’s entryway, which she reminds me to place my hand upon before I walk out the door. I climbed Grace Ridge three times in three summers, and then, when I stopped being able to climb mountains, it became again a landing place for my eyes and mind. The weather passing over it came and went. But it felt unmoving, solid.
This time of year, snow falls on the mountain, then melts, again and again. Today it is stippled with white. During that fall years ago when I photographed the mountain every day, and wrote about it and dreamed about it, I heard of a film called “My Mountain.” The filmmaker set up a camera on a mountaintop and filmed the weather and seasonal changes continuously, day after day. My imagination became the camera that set itself on top of Grace Ridge, placed my own body on the tundra and let the snow fall upon it, let it freeze up with the tiny tundra plants, let it thaw, let the wind blow over it, let it transform into bones, let voles chew it, let moss cover it. Even when I couldn’t see the mountain, even when I was far away, it remained. Blueberries ripened and withered. Strange, bronze discs—boletes—sprouted upon it, then dried in the wind. Mountain goats trampled the slopes. Marmots whistled. Storms came and went, the wind whipped up and died down.
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I died. I died and the mountain remained. I died and leaves on the birch trees budded above what was once my yard. I died and the nettles pushed up through layers of fallen birch leaves. I died and one day, a wind came and the leaves blizzarded down. And the snow came, and the snow went. I died and you died and the ever-moving earth continued on and on. We died and the earth continued and changed. And so—living, dying, dead, reborn in other forms—did we. There is a future. It is beyond us, like that oval of blue behind layers of mountains, beyond weather. It is not ours to have or to hold. There is a future. It is the mountain. It is the earth.
Past the Edge of Snow
By Peter Gurche
This winter, I spent two grey weeks in coastal Alaska, skirting the borders of loss. Seven hours after Christmas dinner with my own family, after the pork loin and ginger sauce and carols and gifts, I was on a northbound plane moving through the dim winter dawn toward a house heavy with grief. Elli, my girlfriend, was losing her stepmom, Eva, to metastatic breast cancer. After years of chemo, the cancer wouldn’t be held back: the fluid built up in her chest and abdomen, the tumor grew.
When I landed in Homer, a change in the weather had lifted the snow line to a few hundred feet above sea level. Most of town was drab and damp, but looking up you could see a white world that floated there like another universe, intertwining with ours on the hillside in dense thickets of alder and birch, pale and beckoning. I stood staring at the divide, until Elli picked me up at the airport and took me home. Inside, Eva sat next to the woodstove, sipping tea, while her oxygen unit purred quietly.
“Hi, Peter,” she said softly, but with a smile. “Merry Christmas.” She wore a headscarf, and underneath it her eyes glowed warmer and brighter than the fire she sat next to. I went over and wrapped my arms gently around her, feeling the bones in her shoulders, the bones in her back.
“Hi, Eva,” I whispered into her scarf. “It’s good to see you.”
* * *
It’s hard to know what to say when someone is dying. I had known Eva for seven years—known her as a runner, as a gardener, as a cutthroat Scrabble player. And for most of that time, I’d known her also as a cancer patient. But that last qualifier hardly seemed real, always buried beneath Eva’s vitality and spunk. Now it sprang out from her bird-thin wrists, the steady doses of morphine, the constant exhaustion. It hung behind our words, and in the spaces between them, a stranger in the house.
Perhaps the strangest thing was the way that it was possible, in certain moments, to ignore the cancer, to lay aside the utter uncertainty that we went to bed with every night. Strange, and also miraculous: we still laughed, still did dishes, still listened to music and went for runs. Eva wouldn’t settle for anything less than life just as plain or wondrous or desperate as it came—no moping, no sugarcoating.
The last meal Eva cooked was my birthday dinner. She made meatballs—“Jeff’s Balls” she called them, for a friend who supplied the recipe. It took her four hours. She brought an onion and cutting board over to the couch and worked slowly with the knife, taking time with each slice. She stopped when she was tired and let the allium fumes fill her nose and water her eyes. She formed the meatballs patiently, fried them in oil, covered them in rich red sauce. When we sat down to eat, I smiled through watery eyes at my plate and its two perfect globes atop the pasta. I brought a fork to my mouth: garlic, gratitude, stewed tomatoes, and the loveliest of gifts, freely given.
In those weeks, I stood outside of the pool of deep loss that Elli and her family swam through. I moved on the quiet edges of grief, inhabiting the outer orbits, circling. But I was in turn bound by my own small moon, my own piercing and weighty sadness. I straddled the space. I wasn’t an interloper—I knew and loved Eva, and had my own relationship with her—yet I didn’t face the same anguished rending of the heart. So I tended the fire, the raging grief of Elli and her family, while another burned in me, smaller, but still painful to the touch.
* * *
Eva died a week after I left. In the gulf of her absence, an urge to search sprang up in Elli and her family and me. We saw signs of Eva’s passage in birds, and wind, and old corners of memory; but it was hard to find a trace of Eva herself. When I think back to the day I landed in Homer and the line across the hill, I think I know where she went. She went to that winter world, that place of fey light and thicket, of ice flake and feather and raven calls. The world that hangs above this one and is twisted up in it, and sometimes, if the weather is right, descends when we’re sleeping and wakes us to a dream that is soft and white and encompassing. And on those days we can go out walking in it, and take its air into our lungs, and sing soft songs in the gathering dusk.