Mystery

Ten years ago, my birthday. I am visiting a friend in New Hampshire. It is unseasonably cold for early October; already, less than two hours north of our Boston suburb, frost has ravaged gardens, stolen the life out of all the flowers in the big planters downtown. While my friend is at work, I spend the day wandering through her town.

Peterborough is just half an hour away from where I grew up, but it feels further, thanks in large part to the mountain in between, the harsher climate over here. When I was a child, we rarely came in this direction; “civilization” lay to the south and to the east, toward Boston, not up and over Temple Mountain in the direction of Vermont. Yet our occasional family trips — for summer evening ice cream cones at Silver Ranch, or to prowl antique stores with my mother — made lasting impressions. The town seemed special even then.

On this day, my forty-second birthday, my eye catches a sign propped up on the sidewalk in the middle of town: Tibetan Monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery Create Sand Mandala. Each day this week, 9 –5.
I have no idea what a sand mandala is, but the door of the old brick building, a former Baptist church from the colonial era, is open, and I have an empty afternoon stretching out before me. It seems unlikely that a tiny New England village with a population of four thousand could support a multi-cultural museum, but that is exactly what the Mariposa appears to be: a welcoming community center devoted to bringing world culture to one small town in New Hampshire. I drop a donation in the jar, walk through a gallery stuffed with vibrant artwork, handmade dolls, puppets, and wall hangings, to the stairs leading to the second floor.

Upstairs, the soaring hall has been transformed into a sacred space. At one end of the room, an altar has been created, adorned with apples and oranges, small bowls of rice, flowers, candles, and a statue of the Buddha. On a large blue board on the floor an intricate design is taking shape, made entirely of colored grains of sand. I slip off my shoes, take a seat, and watch the monks silently bending to their work.

There are several monks, dressed in crimson robes, sitting quietly, meditating; two others are down on their knees on the hard wooden floor, hunched over, noses inches from the ground as they “paint” with what look like narrow metal funnels and small sticks. There is no sound but for the rhythmic tapping of metal on metal, as they painstakingly fill in their exquisitely detailed design with grains of colored sand.

Afternoon sun streams through the high windows. People come and go. A young mother arrives to watch with her little boy, who solemnly eats an apple, never taking his eyes from the monks, who look up every now and again, stretch, and smile at us, nodding hello. The mandala increases in complexity, each intricate design element appearing as if by magic from the thin streams of sand. Not a grain falls out of place. The slightest breeze or sneeze or misstep would destroy its geometric perfection. Yet the monks move easily around their creation, barefoot, their robes flowing, seemingly heedless of the danger yet as mindful of each movement as they would be if performing a dance. Unhurried, graceful, light-hearted. Peace pervades the room.

A thought arrives, alights like a bird upon my shoulder: I want to live here.

That night, back at home in Massachusetts, my husband is waiting for me; he and our sons have made a chocolate cake and a birthday dinner. But there is something going on in the back yard. The people who recently bought the house right next to ours have decided to cut down all the trees between our two houses. The chainsaws are still roaring. The landscape has changed; but it suddenly feels as if everything else has changed, too. Where, just yesterday, there were golden leaves shimmering in the sunlight, a thick, leafy canopy of protection and privacy surrounding our home, there is suddenly devastation. Our familiar tree-house view is gone, replaced by a stark, unfiltered view into someone else’s brightly lit tv room. Tears fill my eyes. I say, “I think we need to move.” I am as surprised by the words as Steve is.

Sometimes we recognize the defining moments of our lives as they’re happening. But not always. It was a long time after that emotional October evening before my husband and I finally decided that yes, in fact, we were going to move. And longer still before we finally settled into a house of our own on a hilltop in the town of Peterborough. But looking back now, I know: for me, the journey to the place we now call home began in the presence of a group of exiled Tibetan monks from India, who came to spend a week creating a mandala for peace in a small town in New England.

This week, the monks returned to the Mariposa. They are traveling in the U.S. now at the request of the Dalai Lama, re-creating a new, breathtaking sand mandala designed to inspire world harmony and to honor all beliefs and all religions. Early on Friday morning, Jack and Steve and I sat for a while and watched them put the finishing touches on their week’s work. The monks welcomed us happily, eyes twinkling. The mandala was breathtaking; intricate, finely textured, each minute detail meticulously rendered. A half hour passed; Jack needed to get to school, but none of us could bring ourselves to leave.

According to Buddhist scripture, sand mandalas transmit positive energies to the environment and to all who view them; they are believed to effect purification and healing. On this beautiful April day, there was no doubt at all: we were in the presence of peace, enveloped in love, steeped in goodness. Exactly where we were meant to be.

Funny how ten years go by and, while you’re busy living your life, it is inexorably turning into something else altogether. Funny, too, how destiny is revealed, how it’s only by pausing and looking back that we can truly discern the gifts given us by grace — the moments that have shown us who we are, that have illuminated the dark path, revealing just where it is we are meant to put our feet and the direction in which we are called to go.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about intuition. Was it just a random thought, or some kind of inner knowing, that brushed against my awareness all those years ago, on my forty-second birthday, loosening my grip on things as they were and whispering in my ear that change was already in the wind?

I can’t say, but I’m coming to believe that we are guided all the time, that support and direction are right there for us if we take time to pause and listen to the quiet inner voice that says, “go here,” or “do that.” Perhaps the way forward can only be revealed in those quiet spaces in between moments, when we are sitting still, so still that gentle breezes from another realm can be heard to murmur.

This spring, coming to the end of a time of intense work and reflection, I find myself once again at loose ends, humbled by uncertainty. Our two sons are about to graduate, one from high school and the other from college. Life is full of unknowns. But one thing I have learned is that there are energies at work in all our lives that can be trusted. Our job may simply be to ask the questions, to open ourselves to possibility, without presuming to nail down the answers. Perhaps there is no right answer anyway, other than the rightness of trusting that things will unfold as they are meant to — as long as we’re willing to make room for our many ways of knowing, even the ones that seem beyond reason, the ones that dwell in the realms of soul, instinct, faith, mystery.

On Sunday, I returned for the monks’ closing ceremony. The room I entered for the first time as a stranger over ten years ago was filled now with my neighbors and friends – it seemed that everyone in town had come out on this rainy afternoon to view the completed mandala and to bid it farewell. For, within hours of completing their masterpiece, the monks destroy their creation. In a deep bow to the impermanence of all things, the monks chanted, prayed, and then,using two ordinary paintbrushes from the hardware store, they swept the beautiful offering they had spent the entire week making into a small rainbow-hued pile.

I came home with a little packet of that sacred sand. And later today, when the sun comes out again, I will sprinkle it in the garden outside our kitchen door, in this place that we have come to call home.

NOTES TO YOU:

If you would like to see more photos of the mandala and the monks at work, please visit The Gift of an Ordinary Day on Facebook; I will have them posted there.

SIGNED BOOKS FOR MOTHER’S DAY As always, my wonderful local bookstore is happy to help with a special gift for a special mom in your life (maybe you?). Click here to order signed, personalized copies of Mitten Strings for God and/or The Gift of an Ordinary Day.

Quiet work

Remember that poster in your high school guidance counselor’s office? The one with an airbrushed photo of some generic sunrise and a caption that read, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”? At seventeen, I really did not want to hear that.

This morning at dawn I stepped outside. The sunrise was spectacular. The first words that popped into my head were, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The birds were singing like crazy. My husband was already down in the field, throwing a tennis ball for Gracie. And my heart was full to overflowing with gratitude. The first day of the rest of my life seemed like a very good reason to stand in one place for a while, watch the sun climb up into the sky, listen to the wild symphony going on outside, and give thanks for everything.

Yesterday at 2:08 in the afternoon, I hit the SEND button and emailed the last chapter of the manuscript I’ve been working on for the last year to my editor. It took a little while for the fact of that to sink in: I did it.

I walked downstairs in a daze, went outside and sat down in a lawn chair next to Steve. And then I burst into tears. The transition from writing to being done with writing pretty much undid me. There was the relief of making my deadline, of course, but it was inextricably intertwined with the despair of knowing that the finished product is so much less than the beautiful creation I envisioned in my imagination all those months ago, before I actually got down to the discouraging business of trying to translate experience into words.

While I’ve been sequestered upstairs in Henry’s bedroom, surrounded by his old Red Sox posters and various drafts and file cards, the seasons changed. I missed most of winter, and barely noticed the arrival of spring. Yesterday, with the finish line in sight, I sat on Henry’s bed with my laptop in front of me for seven hours without even looking up. When I finally ventured out into my own front yard yesterday afternoon, it felt as if I was returning home from an extended trip overseas, or was just recovering from a debilitating illness. I’d been gone a long time. Now, suddenly, with one tap of the keys, I was back. Re-entry was just a little rocky. All I could think was, “I’m done and I failed.”

My husband wiped my tears away and gave me a sweet letter he’d written in the morning, when he could see the end was near. And then he gave me Wendell Berry’s “Collected Poems,” the most perfect gift for that tumultuous moment. I opened the book and the first poem I came to was this one, called “Like Snow.”

Like Snow

Suppose we did our work
Like the snow, quietly, quietly,
Leaving nothing out.

Such solid, simple words. Such a fine thing to aspire to. I wonder why it is that we humans suffer so with our fears and doubts about not being enough. We do the best we can, give all we have to give, and then we turn a harsh eye on the beauty of our efforts.

Today, on this first day of the rest of my life, I have practiced doing my work like the snow. Quietly, quietly.

A brief friendship, a lasting memory

Her doctor told her she had, at best, two years to live.  That was nearly twenty-five years ago, when Kathy Rich learned that after a brief remission, her stage four breast cancer had returned.

My friend Jamie Raab knew Kathy and I would hit it off, and she was right.  Last summer, when I went to spend a weekend at Jamie’s country house in upstate New York, she arranged for Kathy to come, too.

The day we spent together was a scorcher; ninety-eight degrees in the shade.  But the heat didn’t stop Kathy from suggesting that we hop in the car and drive over to Rosendale, to walk around at a street festival and hear some music.

I was eyeing the pool, a novel I’d brought along, thinking it was way too hot to move, let alone fight the crowds milling around between a dozen outdoor stages.  But I kept my mouth shut.  Kathy was game, and she was the one with a leg brace, a crutch, a wig, and cancer.

The music was pretty loud and mostly awful, the heat was withering, but the people-watching was exceptional – it was as if we’d stepped back in time, landing smack in the middle of Woodstock Nation.  We wandered slowly, painstakingly, through a sea of tie-dye.  We watched girls in pig-tails and bikinis do amazing things with hula hoops.  We drank lemonade, bought silver earrings, marveled at the displays of peace signs and hemp tote bags and gauzy India Import blouses, just like the ones we’d all worn in high school.  We sought shade.  Kathy never complained, though it was obvious that each step required an effort, that it hurt her to walk, and that the heat was taking a cruel toll.  What she made clear however, without ever having to say so, was that pain was a price she was willing to pay for experience.

Later, back at the house, Kathy and I hung out for a couple of hours, while Jamie went off to buy groceries and pick up another friend at the train. Kathy asked if I’d mind if she took off her wig; on the hottest day of the summer, a thick helmet of someone else’s hair on your head is its own particular form of torture.  When she came out of the bathroom a few minutes later in her bathing suit, she’d removed both the wig and the brace.  She seemed a lot more comfortable.  And heartbreakingly vulnerable.  Tiny, pale, completely bald, with enormous dark eyes and a dazzling smile, Kathy looked, I thought, like a luminously beautiful alien from another planet.  And in a way, that is what she was.  How does anyone live on this earth for twenty-five years after being told your time is up, without becoming a little other-worldly?  She’d had a foot on the other side for a long time.

To say she also had perspective on what’s important in life is, of course, an understatement; what astonished me most, though, was the purity of her joy.  Sick as she was — and even though she knew the disease she’d somehow outwitted and outlasted for years was catching up with her at last– Kathy was also an eternal optimist; how, at this point, could she be anything but? And she was, quite simply, lots of fun to be around.

I slung one arm around her waist, held on to her elbow with my other hand and, laughing at my clumsiness, we somehow managed to hobble down to the pool. We lolled around in the water for an hour or so, talking as if we’d known one another all our lives.  Kathy was that kind of person — she cut right to the chase.  Right away, I loved her for that. Why waste time on social niceties when you can get down to the real stuff, life and death and the big questions, instead?  There was no subject I couldn’t broach with her, nothing that felt off limits; who cared that we’d only met that morning?

“How long have you needed the brace, and the cane?” I asked.  She told me that, although there had been times in the past when she’d been bedridden, this new, apparently permanent disability was recent.  She was still getting used to being so visibly and so physically “handicapped.”

“But you know,” she said, “it’s a funny thing.  When I started having so much trouble walking, what I found out there was just the friendliest world.”

Kathy didn’t stick around for dinner that night.  She was tired and wanted to get home before dark.  I remember watching her slip her wig back on, give it a little tousle and a quarter turn, so that one auburn lock hung down casually over her face.  We hugged good-bye, and Jamie told her friend she’d see her soon.  And then Kathy took her crutch and made her way out to her car, lowered herself in, and drove away.  I didn’t see her again.  But I see her now, in my mind’s eye.  And I know I will remember her always, a woman who knew all there is to know about living in the moment.

As most of you who are regular readers here are aware, I’ve been finishing work on a new book, trying to meet my deadline, which is now less than two weeks away. I’ve had to let the blog go for a while, in order to focus all my time on the manuscript.  But when I woke up this morning, and found a note on my phone from Jamie saying that Kathy had died yesterday, I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of writing done today.  Instead, I took a long walk.  I went to my favorite spot in the woods to pray and meditate and listen to the wind in the trees.  And I remembered Kathy.  I knew her only for that one day, but in that short time, we managed to cover a lot of ground.  It feels odd to say it, but I feel as if I’ve lost a friend.  Certainly, all who knew her have lost a teacher.

Below is an essay Kathy wrote a few years ago for the New York Times.  I read it again early this morning, through tears.  I may have written a book called The Gift of an Ordinary Day, but Kathy Rich, more than anyone else I’ve ever met, knew just how much the present is really worth.

17 Years Later, Stage 4 Survivor Is Savoring a Life Well Lived
By KATHERINE RUSSELL RICH
Each year on a day in January — the 15th, to be precise — I go to a Web site and post a message to hundreds of women I’ve never met, saying, essentially, “I’m still here.”
Within days, a thunderous chorus comes back, 200 voices, 300. A few of them ask, “How can this be?” Sometimes they begin, “I’m crying.” Many answer in kind: “I’m here, too. It’s now three years.” “Five years.” “Three months.” “Seven.”
What we’re doing, in a way, is checking for lights in the darkness.
Now there probably aren’t a lot of Web sites where the announcement that you’re around and breathing would cause anyone to take notice, let alone respond. But this is a site for people with Stage 4 breast cancer, something I’ve had for 17 years. The average life expectancy with the diagnosis is 30 months, so this is a little like saying I’m 172 years old: seemingly impossible. But it’s not. I first found I had the illness in 1988, and it was rediagnosed as Stage 4 in 1993. That’s 22 years all together, which is the reason I post each year on the anniversary of the day I learned my cancer was back: to let women know that it happens, that people do live with this for years.
I tell them that when the cancer returned, it came on so fast, spread so quickly, that I was given a year or two to live. Within months, the disease turned vicious. It started breaking bones from within, and was coming close to severing my spinal cord.
Nothing was working, till a doctor tried a hormone treatment no one used much anymore, and the cancer turned and retreated, snarling. It remains sluggish but active. Every so often, it rears its head; when it does, we switch treatments and it slides back down. In that way, I stay alive.
I tell them: you just don’t know.
Two and a half years after the Stage 4 diagnosis, I confessed to my mother that the doctors had said I had two years to live, tops. I’d kept this information to myself because if you say it, it’s true. I told her this laughing, as if we were trading preposterous stories. “Well, I guess you’re going to have to hold your breath if you’re going to make that deadline,” she replied, in her slow Southern drawl when I gave my previously stated expiration date.
I spent the next five years holding my breath, then did the same for another five. I enacted every New Year’s resolution, past and future, all at once. Quit work that had grown stale and became a writer. Wrote a book. Went to India on assignment, fell in love with the language that was swirling around me, went back to live for a year and learn Hindi. Didn’t realize the reason I’d come to dislike that hyperbolically overachieving Lance Armstrong was that his behavior was too familiar. Take a nap, Lance! I’d think to myself, though in truth I couldn’t either.
But if I was verging on radical levels of life consumption, I had a reason: No one had told me I wasn’t going to die soon. About 12 years out, my doctor finally did.
There’s a small subcategory of people with Stage 4 breast cancer, it turned out, who live for years and years. “Twenty. Thirty,” said my doctor, George Raptis. This group constitutes about 2 percent of all cases. Doctors can’t predict who will fall into this category. They can’t say you’re in it till you’re in it — till you’ve racked up the necessary miles.
The reason they can’t is that for all the pink-ribbon hoopla, despite the hundreds of millions that have been poured into breast cancer research, hardly anyone has looked into the why of long-distance survival; not one doctor has specialized in this field.
Here’s pretty much the sum of collective knowledge: People in this group tend to have disease that has spread to the bone (as opposed to lung or liver, say) and feeds on estrogen. They tend to do well on hormone treatments. End of commonly known story.
But as Dr. Gabriel N. Hortobagyi at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston told me, you can also find women whose breast cancer spread to organs other than bone, for whom hormone therapy did exactly nothing, who had their lesions surgically excised and who have been free of cancer for 30 years. None of these women could have expected to live.
You just don’t know, and neither, unfortunately, does the medical field.
One reason, as the breast surgeon Dr. Susan Love told me, is that “many clinical trials are funded by the drug companies to run for five years,” obviously not enough if you’re investigating long-term survivors. But through her institute, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, she has begun to conduct research.
Dr. Love said she was inspired by a colleague who told her that in World War II, aviation experts focused on planes that went down until someone said, “Why aren’t we studying the planes that stay up in the air?” By no means a reflexive optimist, she thinks there’s hope we’ll find a cure.
On the Web site, I tell the women how deeply I believe there’s no such thing as false hope: all hope is valid, even for people like us, even when hope would no longer appear to be sensible.
Life itself isn’t sensible, I say. No one can say with ultimate authority what will happen — with cancer, with a job that appears shaky, with all reversed fortunes — so you may as well seize all glimmers that appear.
I write to them (to myself) that of course this is tough: the waiting to see if the shadows are multiplying, the physical pain, the bouts with terrible blackness.
“But there can be joy in this life, too,” I say, “and that’s so important to remember. This disease does not invalidate us. This past year, I’ve had the joy of falling in love with my sister’s kids, who live states away and whom I hadn’t had the chance to know. I’ve had a second book come out, one I worked on for eight years, about going to live in India with Stage 4 cancer. I’ve had so many moments of joy this year, but when I’m in blackness, I forget about those.” Then I ask them to write and tell me about theirs, and lights begin to flash.
“Had a pajama party with my oldest friend, laughing through the night in matching pajamas about old times.”
“Came in second in a bridge tournament.”
“I went on a wonderful camping trip with my family.”
“Seeing my older daughter grow taller than me. She’s now 5-9.”
One thing I don’t ever think to say: When I was told I had a year or two, I didn’t want anything one might expect: no blow-out trip to the Galápagos, no perfect meal at Alain Ducasse, no defiant red Maserati. All I wanted was ordinary life back, for ordinary life, it became utterly clear, is more valuable than anything else.
I don’t think to say it, and I never will. The women on the site already know that.

Katherine Russell Rich is the author of “Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language” and “The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer — and Back.”