Archive for March 2010


March 27, 2010

Some people have minds that allow them to memorize poetry and long speeches. I regret that I am not one of those people. I am a great fan of Rilke. I must rely on the written word to hear his poetry in my mind.


Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875.

His parents had previously lost another child, a daughter, in her infancy; his mother dressed him in girl’s clothing until he was five years old, and she called him Sophia (I don’t know that she was aware that Sophia means Wisdom).

Rilke married in his twenties, but it only lasted a year; he and his former wife remained close friends for the remainder of his life.

During his life, he met a number of famous artists–writers, musicians, and visual artists. He and Auguste Rodin were close friends.

Rilke had leukemia, so he was immune system-compromised. He spent quite a bit of time living in a sanatorium. Sadly, he died in 1926 from a reaction to the prick of a rose thorn, demonstrating that beauty has its ugly side.


Here are some excerpts that I’ve collected for myself. I arranged them in alphabetical order so one doesn’t seem more important than another with the exception of the two long ones at the end. I hope they add to your life as well.

A person isn’t who they are
during the last conversation you had with them–
they’re who they’ve been throughout your whole relationship.

All emotions are pure which gather you and lift you up;
that emotion is impure which seizes only one side of your being and so distorts you.

All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood.

Believe that with your feelings and your work
you are taking part in the greatest;
the more strongly you cultivate this belief,
the more will reality and the world go forth from it.

Everything is blooming most recklessly;
if it were voices instead of colors,
there would be an unbelievable shrieking
into the heart of the night.

Extinguish my sight,
and I can still see you;
plug up my ears,
and I can still hear;
even without feet
I can walk toward you,
and without mouth
I can still implore.
Break off my arms,
and I will hold you
with my heart
as if it were a hand;
strangle my heart,
and my brain will still throb;
and should you set fire to my brain,
I still can carry you with my blood.

For one human being to love another;
that is perhaps the most difficult
of all our tasks,
the ultimate, the last test and proof,
the work for which all other work
is but preparation.

He reproduced himself with so much humble objectivity,
with the unquestioning, matter-of-fact interest
of a dog who sees himself in a mirror and thinks:
there’s another dog.

I have never been aware before how many faces there are.
There are quantities of human beings,
but there are many more faces, for each person has several.

I hold this to be the highest task
for a bond between two people:
that each protects the solitude of the other.

I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.

If your daily life seems poor,
do not blame it;
blame yourself
that you are not poet enough
to call forth its riches;
for the Creator, there is no poverty.

It is a tremendous act of violence to begin anything.
I am not able to begin.
I simply skip what should be the beginning.

It is good to be solitary,
for solitude is difficult;
that something is difficult
must be reason the more
for us to do it.

Let life happen to you.
Believe me:
life is in the right, always.

Live your questions now,
and perhaps even without knowing it,
you will live along some distant day into your answers.

Love consists in this,
that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.

Love is like the measles.
The older you get it,
the worse the attack.

More belongs to marriage than four legs in a bed.

No great art has ever been made
without the artist having known danger.

Once the realization is accepted
that even between the closest human beings
infinite distances continue,
a wonderful living side-by-side can grow,
if they succeed in loving the distance between them
which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.

One had to take some action against fear
when once it laid hold of one.

Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses
who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.

Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being
something helpless that wants help from us.

Spring has returned.
The Earth is like a child
that knows poems.

Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger,
of having gone through an experience all the way to the end,
where no one can go any further.

The deepest experience of the creator is feminine,
for it is experience of receiving and bearing.

The future enters into us,
in order to transform itself in us,
long before it happens.

The only journey is the one within.

The purpose of life
is to be defeated by greater and greater things.

There are no classes in life for beginners;
right away you are always asked
to deal with what is most difficult.

There are so many things about which
some old man ought to tell one while one is little;
for when one is grown
one would know them as a matter of course.

This is the miracle that happens every time
to those who really love:
the more they give, the more they possess.

Truly to sing, that is a different breath.

Who has not sat before his own heart’s curtain?
It lifts: and the scenery is falling apart.

The leaves are falling, falling as if from afar,
as if withered in the distant gardens of heaven;
with nay-saying gestures they fall.

And in the nights falls the heavy earth
from all the stars into loneliness.

We all are falling. This hand there falls.
And look at the others: it is in all of them.

And yet there is one, who holds all this
falling with infinite gentleness in his hands.

I’m too alone in the world, and yet not
alone enough
to make every hour holy.
I am too small in the world, and yet not
tiny enough
just to stand before you like a thing,
dark and shrewd.
I want my will, and I want to be with
my will
as it moves towards deed;
and in those quiet, somehow hesitating times,
when something is approaching,
I want to be with those who are wise
or else alone.
I want always to be a mirror that reflects
your whole being,
and never to be too blind or too old
to hold your heavy, swaying image.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere do I want to remain folded,
for where I am bent and folded, there
I am lie.
And I want my meaning
true for you. I want to describe myself
like a painting that I studied
closely for a long, long time,
like a word I finally understood,
like the pitcher of water I use every day ,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that carried me
through the deadliest storm of all.

I‘m too alone in the world, and yet not  /
alone enough
to make every hour holy.
I am too small in the world, and yet not /
tiny enough
just to stand before you like a thing,
dark and shrewd.
I want my will, and I want to be with /
my will
as it moves towards deed;
and in those quiet, somehow hesitating times,
when something is approaching,
I want to be with those who are wise
or else alone.
I want always to be a mirror that reflects /
your whole being,
and never to be too blind or too old
to hold your heavy, swaying image.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere do I want to remain folded,
for where I am bent and folded, there /
I am lie.
And I want my meaning
true for you. I want to describe myself
like a painting that I studied
closely for a long, long time,
like a word I finally understood,
like the pitcher of water I use every day ,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that carried me
through the deadliest storm of all.

My story (the long version): Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

March 25, 2010

In life, there are some things that develop over time. For example, my faith and beliefs have developed over the course of my lifetime, and I hope that they will continue to evolve for the rest of my life. (I know that some people have a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion experience and become instantly “born again” but this is not part of my story.)

There are other things that happen quickly–even instantly.

For example, I was in a car accident in 1977. A truck crossed over the double yellow line on a curve as I drove along a country road. My little Dodge Colt was crushed, and I sustained life-threatening injuries. The long-term consequences have been both physical and psychic for me. But that’s only an instance, and not the story that I want to tell here.

In August 2001 I went through a couple of weeks of not feeling well. I was 49 years old, and I thought that the constipation that I was experiencing was a sign of my impending middle age. Despite this, my then-partner (now wife) Melinda and I went out to dinner on Friday evening with some friends. I “sucked it up” and enjoyed our time together the best that I could, but on our drive home I started feeling worse and worse, mentally curling up in a ball on the floor of the car as Melinda drove. For the first time I told her that I was feeling sick. When we got home, I went to bed and stayed in bed throughout the weekend.

On Monday morning Melinda left on a business trip. She was driving, leaving our Southern California home to go to the Bay Area by way of the Central Valley. She checked in with me several times during the day, and I assured her that I was okay, despite the fact that I felt lousy. That night at about 8:30, after having dinner with my mother in the Fresno area, Melinda called again. As we talked, she decided that she was going to come home right then. I told her that wasn’t necessary, but she insisted on making the 3-1/2 hour drive right then.

By the time she walked in the door my situation had significantly deteriorated. I was weak and nauseous. I was standing over the bathroom sink thinking I was going to vomit when she greeted me; she went to do something (get her suitcase? I don’t know) and I immediately passed out cold. When she came back moments later, she was standing over me: “Are you alright?” I heard her ask. Then, “That’s it! I’m taking you to the emergency room.” By then, I was done protesting.

Off we went. It took little time to get there, and despite a busy ER waiting room, little time to get me in to see a doctor. I introduced Melinda to the doctor as my legal domestic partner, and then my mind wandered off somewhere else while they talked about what was going to happen. Pretty soon I was undergoing tests, tests, and more tests; pretty soon, I was being introduced to first a diagnostician and next hearing, “This is your surgeon.”

Surgeon. Tumor. Cancer. Colon cancer.

These are not words that anyone hears on an everyday basis, particularly about themself. It was a shock. But I had no time to do much processing.

Soon I was being anesthetized. I was saying goodbye to Melinda, telling her I love her, telling her, “I could die, you know.” Trying to pray, to recite the 23rd Psalm–but the drugs were working and I forgot the words.

I was in the hospital for three weeks. My colon, appendix, ovaries, and ten lymph nodes were removed. The kind of tumor I had is called an “apple core lesion”–a tumor that wraps itself around the outside of the colon and chokes down on it.  Because I was in distress when I came to the hospital, there was no time to prepare properly and my surgery was basically meatball surgery, performed in the middle of the night. After the surgery, I was taken to some mystery place where I was kept in a drug-induced coma for a week as a pain management measure. When I was brought out of the coma, I was still intubated–something that is painful and also frustrating because it makes communication impossible. I had what Melinda called a Christmas tree attached to me: lines of every color running into and out of me. The second and third weeks were spent in a two-bed room, but I was fortunate to not have a roommate until the very last morning I was there. Because my ovaries were also removed I went into instant menopause, and in addition to the post-surgical pain, I experienced the hot flashes that go with that. I was allowed to take a shower–finally–after two and a half weeks. As you might imagine, this was the best shower I have ever taken!

Later, at my first follow-up visit, my surgeon would tell me, “You weren’t ready to hear this at the time, but you were only two to three days from being inoperable.”

I was released from the hospital the night of Thursday, September 6. Getting home was so exhausting that I slept for most of the three following days. We’d been having the house painted when I went in to the hospital. I was anxious to see it, but I wasn’t able to gather the strength to go outside until Sunday afternoon; I walked out the back door, down the driveway, and across the street, where I sat down on the curb and admired the colors I had selected. It then took me 20 minutes to regain enough strength for the “return trip.”

On Tuesday, the world blew up. September 11, 2001. I got out of bed and wandered into the family room where Melinda had the television on; I stood there and watched as the plane flew into the second tower. I believe that the nightmarish experience I had was different from most people’s–since I was still taking the maximum allowable prescription of painkillers.

For almost three months I had to have a visiting nurse come to the house every day for wound care. I then went to the hospital every day for wound care for another two months. When my wound was sufficiently healed, I started my chemotherapy regime, which went on for another ten months. I saw my surgeon every week. I bonded with her. And then it was time to be discharged as her patient; this was hard, saying goodbye to the woman who had saved my life, who was compassionate enough to have held my hand on a particularly bad recovery day. I was handed off to my oncologist.

I still see the oncologist every six months. I go in and have bloodwork a week before my appointment. Even though most of my appointments have gone smoothly (“Perfect! Everything is perfect. See you in six months.”) that week is a time of building anxiety. Almost half of all patients thought “cured” of colon cancer develop recurrence within five years. And yet, here I am–8-1/2 years post-cancer, and going strong.

Think of George Bush’s spokesperson Tony Snow. Despite his politics, I rooted for him and prayed for him every day. I wrote to him, and he wrote back. We had become part of a strange family. I cried when he died.

But there is never a day that I don’t think about it, never a time when it isn’t part of me. I have a “zipper” scar that runs up my midsection. I have dietary restrictions and weird digestive issues. I get nervous when my stomach growls. My body may be cancer-free, but my soul will always be victimized by this disease.

The irony is that I was 49 years old when colon cancer struck me. I had every intention of going to the doctor and having my first colonoscopy in 4-1/2 months when I turned 50. I just didn’t get that chance.

My conclusion though, is that you do not want this to happen to you or to anyone in your life. Colon cancer is the #2 cancer killer in the United States, but it is also the most treatable. The test that seeks out the disease also allows the doctor to remove potential cancer growths right then and there. So if you’re 50 or older, have a colonoscopy. If someone else you know hasn’t had one, talk to them–share my story–and make them get one. Everyone who has had one says that the prep is worse than the test itself–and it is. But the prep is nothing–nothing–compared with what I went through and continue to experience.

Be well.

As we say on Twitter, #beatcancer because #cancersucks

Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone

March 14, 2010

A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, who so often sings the songs of my soul.

I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.
I want my free will and want it accompanying
the path which leads to action;
and want during times that beg questions,
where something is up,
to be among those in the know,
or else be alone.

I want to mirror your image to its fullest perfection,
never be blind or too old
to uphold your weighty wavering reflection.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent;
for there I would be dishonest, untrue.
I want my conscience to be
true before you;
want to describe myself like a picture I observed
for a long time, one close up,
like a new word I learned and embraced,
like the everday jug,
like my mother’s face,
like a ship that carried me along
through the deadliest storm.

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

(translated by Annemarie S. Kidder)

Prayer Rocks

March 1, 2010

Although our house isn’t directly on an old riverbed, much of the area surrounding us is–and our church is. There is a lot of quarrying of gravel and stone. But mostly just a lot of rocks. Simple rock, lots of granite. Everything from sand to boulders.

When I was little, I would often find “treasures” as I walked home from school or played in the streets (which were our playground). These treasures were often pieces of machines: gears, springs, screws, etc. I would pick them up and put them in my pocket, and I would carry them around with me for weeks or days until I figured out what they were. After making this determination, I would throw it out and begin my search for the next treasure. I got pretty good at doing this.

Now that I’m older, my pockets are filled with a different kind of treasure. Mostly (but not all) little rocks. These rocks are reminders to me. I’ll be making my way through the world, and I’ll reach into my pocket and feel my collection. One rock or other item will make itself known to me–sometimes in a very insistent way–and I will rub it and hold it for awhile. This is a kind of prayer. Sometimes the prayer takes on words; often it is silent meditation. Each rock in my pocket represents a person who I know or know of who needs prayer. Sometimes they know that they need prayer and have requested it. Other times, it’s just something that I have opted to do for someone. Although my rocks are mostly larger than rosary beads, I still call them my deconstructed rosary.

The difference between my prayer rocks and my childhood treasures is that I never cast off my prayers. Once I’ve added to my rock collection, it remains there. It’s gotten so that I can’t carry all of these all the time. But I have a little place where I put them. Some are with me all the time; others get attention in the morning or the evening and get carried around when I know the person is in particular need.

This crazy spiritual practice is one that adds much to my prayer life. It’s one that I’ve told a few people about, but mostly keep to myself. So if you see me and notice that my pockets seem heavy and lumpy, know that I’m praying hard that day.

This is one way that I try to live into the words of Jesus:

… “And when you pray, don’t behave like the hypocrites; they love to pray standing up in the synagogues and on street corners for people to see them. The truth is, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to God who is in that secret place, and your Abba God–who sees all that is done in secret–will reward you.

“And when you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles. They think God will hear them if they use a lot of words. Don’t imitate them. Your God knows what you need before you ask it.”
(Matthew 6:5-8, The Inclusive Bible–Priests for Equality)

Prayer Rock

The Orange on the Seder Plate

March 1, 2010

The Orange on the Seder Plate

[Add an orange to the traditional items on the Seder plate. Then invite someone to ask “one more question,” “Why Is There an Orange on the Seder Plate?” and tell the following story in response:]

In our own day as in the ancient days of our tradition, an event becomes a story, a story is woven with new legends, and the legends lead the path into new teachings. So it is with the orange on the Seder plate.

To begin with, a woman in the far-flung American Diaspora asked a rebbetzin of the old tradition:
“What is the place of lesbians in Jewish life?”

She answered, “Lesbian sexuality in Jewish tradition is as troublesome as eating bread during Pesach!”

So the custom spread among some lesbian Jews to place a piece of bread upon the Seder table.

When another of our sisters heard the story, she said:

“Bread on the Seder plate would shatter the tradition. The presence and the teaching of gay men and lesbians in Jewish life transforms the tradition, but does not shatter it. So let us place on the Seder plate not bread but an orange — transformation, not transgression.”

So ever since that day, we place an orange on the Seder plate, for it belongs there as a symbol of growth and transformation.