Archive for August 2011

Cancer: my story… and some unsolicited advice

August 30, 2011

This week I’m celebrating ten years as a cancer survivor. I honestly believe that God has given me a responsibility of ministering to others with cancer along with my own personal celebration. Yesterday morning I met a man whose spouse is undergoing treatment for cancer, and later in the day Melinda shared with me that a colleague friend has been recently diagnosed; I wrote this letter to the friend and his spouse. I post it here in the hope that it might help someone else.

Dear friends,

Ten years ago this week I was discovered to have colon cancer. It wasn’t through any standard diagnostic procedure. I was feeling really sick (but I thought I’d get over it in time). But Melinda was worried about me, and she rushed home late at night, interrupting a business trip (fortunately she was driving, and only up in the Central Valley). She took me to the ER. Pretty soon I was going through the entire battery of tests, then meeting the woman who was to become my surgeon. I was in the hospital for three weeks after having a whole lot of my guts removed (and a week in a drug-induced coma for the ultimate in pain management). When I went to see my surgeon for my first follow-up visit, she said, “You weren’t ready to hear this before, but you were only two to three days from being inoperable.” Of course she was right!

Who’s ever ready to hear any words that have to do with ME or someone I love having cancer?

After a period of healing from my surgery, I then underwent chemo since there were cancer cells in several of the lymph nodes that were removed during my surgery. I hated it. It made me sick and weak. My veins got thin and I had to have a chemo port inserted. I had what’s called “chemo brain” (the chemicals made it hard for me to think even to the point of doing day-to-day activities). I became light sensitive and had some other side effects. But if I had to do it again, I’d say, “Let’s get started!”

Now, even 10 years afterwards, I still see the oncologist every six months. I have to have bloodwork a week before I see her — at which time my anxiety builds and builds. Fortunately, with only one exception, she is able to say to me, “Perfect! See you again in six months.” (The exception turned out to be nothing, but it was scary getting to the point where we knew that.)

So I didn’t die at the outset when I easily could have. I didn’t die after the surgery, which was also a fairly strong possibility. Also, the statistical prognosis for my kind of colon cancer isn’t good: only a 50% five-year survival rate. And yet… here I am, alive and kicking!

Things that help are: having [your loved one] around; having a back-up person when [loved one] needs a respite (and [loved one]: taking an afternoon-off break when you need one); keeping a positive, affirmative attitude even on the worst days (I know that sounds contradictory, but it’s important); and keeping your sense of humor. [After I’d been home for several days, still feeling lousy and weak, Melinda brought in the DVD of “Shrek” which I hadn’t seen yet. It made me laugh out loud. It was then that I knew that I was going to live. I hadn’t been sure up until that point.]

If your treatment is going to involve IV chemo, I really recommend getting a chemo port at the outset. It’s a little one-way valve that is put in your chest, and they can then administer the drugs through that instead of stabbing you every time you have to have a session. It often isn’t offered until after patients start having problems, but I strongly believe it should be discussed up front. Talk to your oncologist about it. My other suggestion is to drink water; you can’t drink too much of it, and it keeps your veins plumped up and washes out many of the impurities. Do what the doctors say — and listen to the nurses, because their help can be invaluable. And DON’T believe statistics or anything else negative. Every person is an individual, not a number! Oh: and remember to enjoy every day because — cancer or not — life is short.

If there’s anything Melinda and I can do for you — including virtual hand-holding from afar — just let us know. We are big believers in prayer and positive thought, so know that we’ll hold you that way too. You aren’t alone.

Strength and love,
Sonnie

p.s. I also recommend a sweet little book called Kitchen Table Wisdom. I’d send you my copy, but I still pick it up and read from it…

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Reflections: Calamity Song

August 24, 2011

I’m not a huge fan of music videos. With few exceptions that I’ve seen, they’re frequently just poorly-done and weird, seemingly having little to do with the song being sung. Maybe that’s part of my growing up before MTV’s “Video Killed the Radio Star” — since my own soundtrack was sung by those radio stars.

Not only was my soundtrack sung on the radio, but I also grew up in fear of nuclear annihilation during the age of the duck-and-cover drill (which even little kids knew was a ridiculous and futile exercise). It seems like we don’t think much about this particular route to the end-of-the-world any more; there are too many other paths that lead to the same destination.

But then this morning I read NPR’s introduction to and subsequently watched the embedded video of The Decemberists’ “Calamity Song.” Inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it’s well worth a watch. And a listen. And a think.

Even if we’re beyond the immediate threat of the Cold War and the fingers poised over The Button, there are still far too many ways in which the result of human behavior is bleak, leading up to a time “’til all that remains is the arms of the angel.”

Calamity Song
(Colin Meloy – The Decemberists)

Had a dream
You and me and the war of the end times
And I believe
California succumbed to the fault line
We heaved relief
As scores of innocents died

And the Andalusian tribes
Setting the lay of Nebraska alight
‘Til all that remains is the arms of the angel

Petty greed
Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab
You know what I mean
On the road
It’s well advised that you follow your own bag
In the year of the chewable Ambien tab

And the Panamanian child
Stands at the Dowager Empress’s side
And all that remains is the arms of the angel
And all that remains is the arms of the angels

And you’ve receded into loam
And they’re picking at your bones
Will call cold
We’ll come home

Quiet now
Will we gather to conjure the rain down?
Will we now
Build a civilization below ground?
And I’ll be crowned the community kick-it-around

And the Andalusian tribes
Setting the lay of Nebraska alight
‘Til all that remains is the arms of the angels
‘Til all that remains is the arms of the angels

How To Train Your Dragon

August 10, 2011

So my post is a day late… again. But here it is regardless!

This summer’s guilty pleasure is the movie How To Train Your Dragon.

I know: it’s from last year. I’m frequently behind when it comes to movies. Let me just say that I find this movie to be timeless.

One of the things that I love about so many of the animated features over the past 10-15 years is their explorations of being different in a different-is-good way. Characters like Shrek and Fiona, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, everyone in The Incredibles (okay, so not Buddy/Incrediboy — I kept waiting for his redemption. But I digress, as usual.)

For one thing, How To Train Your Dragon has beautiful music. It’s worth it to watch just for that.  It also features a boy who is basically a loser who doesn’t relate to the values being impressed upon him by his father in particular and his society in general. Here’s the thing: he’s not perfect. He makes mistakes. But he learns from them. He also teaches everyone else in the process and saves the world, but that’s the fantasy part. And we loved the dragon Toothless. Toothless looks and acts a lot like our semi-wild cat Ernie.

As a queer person, I also saw queer subtext in this movie. Don’t get me wrong: I see queer subtext in lots of things where a non-queer person might not. It’s my own filter. But I saw Hiccup (the main character) as a gay boy growing up. I also saw Astrid as a baby dyke — after all, she was the only character in the movie who carries a labyris. (Even though there was the intimation of budding romance between these two characters that isn’t necessarily in the happily-ever-after part of the script.)

Anyway, both Melinda and I love this movie, and we’ll probably watch it over and over again!

Finally, here’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek review of this movie:

Do not let your children watch this movie! I, like any good parent, screen movies before allowing my children to view them. And what I saw made me physically ill:

There is a young boy who is growing up in a village that kills dragons. This young boy wants to be like everyone else but there is something different about him (incidentally his mother apparently died when he was very little). No matter how hard he tries he cannot fit in. Then one day a certain event causes him to realize his true inner feeling: he wants to study and understand dragons, not hunt them. Now let me point this out: This is exactly like gays! They start out like everyone else but some traumatizing event in their lives causes their minds to start acting a little off! Obviously a gay analog.

Of course if the movie had just stopped there and had been about the boy overcoming his sinful feelings and becoming a fearless dragonslayer, all would have been well. But of course he explores his new feeling, all the while trying to hide them from his dad. At one point his dad comes in to his room while he is writing dragon stuff down in his journal and he frantically hides it (obviously a reference to gay magazines). Now here’s the worst part, and is a warning for everybody else: the boy spreads his love of dragons around the village, and soon everybody is a dragontamer, not a dragonslayer. It’s just like in real life! One gay man starts talking about how gay he is, and pretty soon everybody in the whole country is as gay as can be!

And… since this is part of a Synchroblog, here are the other posts on the subject of Summer Books and Movies:

God Made Me Queer

August 10, 2011

I grew up in church. I’m of that post-WWII Baby Boomer era when just about everyone went to church. My parents didn’t, but they thought that we kids should, so one of them took us to church and dropped us off and then picked us up afterwards. They — especially Mom — said that it was optional (but we knew that it pretty much wasn’t). We went to the Presbyterian church because the lady up the street invited us to go there, and she had taken us for awhile until they moved away. My family was pretty much poor, but she drove a beautiful gray 1953 Cadillac that I loved riding in. I guess that’s the foundation of my theology.

I took church and religion and God and Jesus seriously as a kid. The pastor invited me to use his office — his “study” — and I got to sit alone in this wonderful book-smelling semi-dark room and explore his library. I don’t remember when this was, because I always went to Sunday school and I always went to worship. It’s just one of those vague memories without a particular framing. But I got to read and look at his religious art books and feel the Spirit.

How’s that for growing up queer?

Then life happened. Yeah, high school and all that in the late 1960’s. War, foment, assassinations. No wonder we took drugs. And all the while a feeling that I was …different — a feeling without a name.

My plan was to go to college, then seminary, and then to become a minister. I’d never met a minister who was woman at that time, but that didn’t matter: I felt God’s strong call.

But first, a break. I left high school to go on the road for awhile. I hitchhiked around and worked here-and-there and saw the country and looked for myself, trying to figure out that …difference. I went off to college having not figured it out, my plan delayed but still intact. As a matter of fact, I went to Sonoma State, only about 30 miles from San Francisco Theological Seminary.

And then… I fell in love. I’d dated a little, but it was always pretty much like going out with a friend or even a brother, with no special attraction or sexual feeling. But when I fell in love — and it was with a woman — all of a sudden, there was that zing! and I knew what that …difference had been about all along.

Sonoma State in the early 1970s was a relatively easy place to be queer — at least for lesbians. But when I came out to my parents, it wasn’t so easy. My mom — who hadn’t been a churchgoer through my childhood — went to the pastor of the church. I now believe that it was his ignorance due to they times, but in essence he tried to counsel me to be straight. Not in that evil, go-to-ex-gay-therapy kind of way, but in that heterosexual assumption kind of way. But despite my new queerness, I knew that I had finally found myself, so I knew that his suggestion was absurd.

I didn’t see my parents for the next three years. I didn’t see the inside of a church for the next twenty years.

[Fast forward…]

Well, needless to say, I didn’t go to seminary. After almost nine years in my coming out relationship, I was single again. I moved to San Francisco. This was in the early 1980s. I had a well-paying, dress-up corporate job by day; I was a wild party dyke riding a motorcycle by nights and weekends. And my best friend was a gay man. There was lots that was great about life at that time, but there was a newly-emerging reality: AIDS (even though it was an unnamed mystery disease at that time). We watched as it began to decimate the community around us. We saw it move into the circle of our friends. At that time AIDS was quick and it was deadly. So I got involved in meal delivery and hand-holding projects. But it wasn’t enough.

My best friend had also gone to church as a kid. He also hadn’t been in a church in many years. He too felt the void. So we decided that we would go to church together. After all, MCC San Francisco was only a few blocks from where I lived. But just thinking of it dredged up the old pain. So we talked about it but didn’t go. Finally, we decided this was the week. He came by and we walked up the street, only to find a sign on the door: “We’ve all gone to Sacramento. Come back next week!” So instead we went to brunch — a queer religious ritual in itself. The next week, when we approached the church, I read the sign out front: this time it said: “Preaching this week is Janie Spahr.”

For me this was a coming home. Janie was a Presbyterian minister. She had been on the staff of MCC-SF, but was then the director of Ministry of Light, an LGBT ministry in Marin.

I attended MCC for awhile, but it was never quite right. But what I loved about being there is the way that MCC does communion. First of all, it’s every week. Also, it isn’t just a little mumbo-jumbo say-the-magic-words and pass-the-plates ritual. Communion at MCC is a deep sacrament, a holy experience, which includes prayer and reconciliation. It’s a queer experiencing of connecting with the Christ.

[Fast forward again]

Another girl in my church youth group also felt …different. When I fell in love I came out to her. She was then married to a man and living in Ohio. Ten years after I came out, she came out; and, coming out and falling in love, she wanted me to meet her partner. They came up to San Francisco to visit me. I would see her, and them, and sometimes just her partner over the next number of years. It was a nice friendship.

And then my friend died. She went into rehab for alcoholism, but when they did the medical intake they transferred her to the hospital — and it was too late. I came to Southern California for her memorial service. During the process of mourning her death, her partner who had also become my friend and I fell in love. I returned to San Francisco, but it was only three months until we knew that we wanted to be together forever.

Melinda wanted to go to church. The church where I had grown up was close by; this was where her partner’s memorial service had been held. The pastor had told Melinda that it was a More Light church (Presbyterian for open and affirming, LGBT inclusive). After a couple of weeks we had the pastor over for tea and cookies, and then we joined the church.

In 2008 when we had the opportunity, Melinda and I got married. We’d never had a public ceremony of any kind, but we knew that we wanted to share this occasion with our family and friends, our neighbors and co-workers. We knew that it was more than a legality, but a Christian marriage as well — and we wanted it to be in our church. Our then-pastor officiated at the service, and we had around 30 ordained clergy and numerous elders attend. We had witnesses, and we were a witness.

So what is all this? It’s my crazy hodgepodge of a story. It wasn’t the post that I’d intended to write, but the one that ended up writing itself. Words. God. Words describing my life, a queer life inseparable from my experience of God. Me telling my own story for myself. No apologies.

And as we sang in my youth group all those years ago:

God likes me just the way I am.
I turned out just right.
But I’ll sing it again in case I forget,
And strange as it seems, I might.

Amen.


Queer Theology Synchroblog info and links to other posts can be found here.

A Lovely Gift

August 2, 2011

This morning a Facebook friend — a stranger really, but these days we can all be friends — shared this quote as an anniversary gift for Melinda and me on the occasion of celebrating our third year of legal marriage. It’s lovely, and I want to reshare it. (Thanks again, Michael.)

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

  • Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell
    Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) won the Nobel prize for literature for his History of Western Philosophy and was the co-author of Principia Mathematica.
    For more, go to http://www.users.drew.edu/~jlenz/brs.html