Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cause For Elation

Ali Gator sat on his butt, looking at the other animals with beady little eyes cold and hard as glass. Jagged teeth lined his jaw, a powerful maw that could crush the life from even the toughest alpha predator. But as I watched him, I knew that his teeth were all show. I knew his jaws were stitched shut. I knew I could sleep through the night with nothing but a sheet between us, because Ali was a stuffed animal nine inches tall, and I was his seven year old owner.

Somehow my imagination turned the fiercest animal in my collection of stuffed animals into the one of the nicest of the lot. In the imagined hierarchy of animals that my brother and I shared, the alpha male was a floppy blue donkey named Blue Donkey, and the alpha female a one-eyed rabbit named Amy. They ruled by virtue of age, having lived with us longer than our memories. Ali was just another member of the pack.

I remembered Ali this morning while booking hostals in Peru. After Cusco and the Inka trail in the Andean highlands, I’ll fly to Iquitos, deep in the heart of the Peruvian jungle. Iquitos is accessible only by air or by boat, having reached the heights of glory in the days before someone discovered a process for synthesizing rubber. Now the town is a tourist hotbed, offering lodges and expeditions deep in the Amazon, and ayahuasca ceremonies deep into the mind. Ali Gator would fit in here – his eyes would glow and gather with the eyes of caimans during nocturnal wildlife hikes, and he’d acutely feel the diminishing presence of his brothers while observing the stuffed animals hanging on tour agency office walls, and watching tourists stuff themselves on his relations at river-front market stalls.

Ali sparked my imagination when I was a child. In character, he was one-dimensional, as I imagine most alligators and crocodiles are. Half a memory from the age of dinosaurs, and half a memory from Disneyland, Ali bore a primal spirit that only imagination could tame. Stuffed animals are our culture’s way of distancing ourselves from the wild through imagination – and it works, but only if you don’t spend your childhood entranced by woods and trees and animals, when the flight and call of a barn owl are cause for elation, and fear of a barking dog makes you cross the street on your way to school. You go home and all the animals behave.

That’s why they call it make-believe.

Children live in imagination, and I remember it as real as reality. I remember it through Ali, who came home with me from the concrete and asphalt jungles around Disneyland. The jungle boat ride at Disneyland was one of my favorite rides – palms and ferns lined a muddy river, and visitors crowded on a boat to glide through a humid tour of bathing elephants and crocodiles, vine-covered ruins and monkeys, stalking tigers and tongue-in-cheek guides. I begged for a vicious rubber snake to take home. Mom and Dad expanded the family instead.

So now I’m about to go to the real jungle, where caimans are hunted to extinction, where forests are cleared instead of tapped, and where vision-vines lure new-age trippers to weeklong retreats. Not exactly the Disneyland ride I remember. But the excitement and anticipation and wonder are still the same, just wiser and more mature. Instead of going with my family, I’ll be going alone, just as I went alone into the fields and woods while growing up. My imagination runs wild.

Ali is probably boxed in my parent’s attic, though his spirit still lives in me, fodder for more imagination and motivation for adventure. Sometimes friends leave and years later you suddenly ache. Blue Donkey’s head eventually fell off, and Amy – the first woman I shared my bed with - stayed behind in a cheap hotel somewhere in the American southwest, in an air-conditioned room with a bed that vibrated if you poured enough quarters and loneliness into it. We all travel alone, I guess. It’s what we bring home that counts.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George

Wanted: Young people of all ages with a keen sense of adventure. Must love the outdoors, be fearless and strong, and willing to learn new skills. The ability to work hard and relax well afterwards is required. Looking for someone with imagination, ingenuity, and natural intelligence. Must appreciate campfire cooking, getting dirty, sleeping in trees, time spent alone, and wild beauty. If you want to live in the woods, keep a hawk as a companion, and be in charge of your own life, read this book!

Planetwalker, by John Francis

Planetwalker is one of the most powerfully eloquent testimonials to the human spirit that I've ever read. John Francis' sacrifices turn out to be anything but, and his story is incandescent with beauty and wisdom. Writing with humility and courage about the power of conviction and community is one thing – proving it through a life of action and then writing so honestly and lucidly about it is something else entirely. I first read Planetwalker a year ago, and it continues to resonate, inspire, and subtly guide me as I walk through a life more complicated than it need be.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wilderness Disciples

"Creek song and bird song and heart song climbing up the trail, plenty of time left on the trail, backpackers on the trail from Wahtum, someone has placed logs on the rock by the beach to make a bench for footsore reckless wanderers with beat spirits beating against the deep ribcage timbered hillsides – refuge here above the falls for castaways and saints – I share my seat with spiders, butterflies."

Written Above Twister Falls, Eagle Creek, OR, May 8th, 2009

I got a fairly early start – not as early as I wanted, but I’m learning to let it flow, and not stress about it – headed up Eagle Creek on a warm Sunday morning. It was cold at first, took a mile to get the blood into my fingers, and I passed the usual sights in the first few miles out of a sense of urgency - half of Portland arrayed behind me, having slept until a more human hour, and soon they’d be at every view from Metlako to Punchbowl Falls. Leap-frogged up-trail with three guys training, one with repaired ACL. Good luck to him, and to his friend with the huge pack. Lots of people coming down from overnights above High Bridge – Wahtum probably still snowed in at 4,000ft. All the packs and bent backs made the trail antique, an old Chinese road filled with monks and wilderness disciples, some coming, some going, all of us wandering. Feeling intensified at the wilderness boundary, with the posted warning about bear and cougar. Like an old map in an adventure story – here be dragons – you step into the unknown, into an area untamed by man. You’re on your own. Happy trails.

That’s the beauty of it: you’re on your own among meadows filled with flowers, tall cliffs covered in moss and waterfall spray, creek roaring in your ears as it bops like a poet splashing up-tempo rapids in spring melt. Sun warm on my arms and a cool beer on the bank above a 200ft waterfall. I think about Dean Moriarty, about a Bakonjo proverb I just read – “Fearing is not dying” – and I think about how I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to die yet. Too much to do, too many unfinished projects. There are still people to meet and people to love and conversations over beer and wine and dinner and life, places to go, ideas, study, lists that never end and always grow, and what’s that “around the next turning of the canyon walls?” I’ve looked at my mortality and decided it’s more fun to look at my life, because damn there just isn’t enough time, so fill it up and let it overflow like a creek in spring melt with laughter and joy and the spectrum splayed across mist and all the regrets you can carry in a bucket with holes in it.

Creeks pour forth truths unbidden.

On the way down the air grew hot and my hair grew into a lion’s mane of Old Testament attitude. Sweat covered my skin and I crossed back from the wilderness with wild spirit eyes, deep and calm but flashing ire at the crowds pushing in from below. They wouldn’t get far, and wouldn’t understand. Eagle Creek deserves better from her lovers. We should all stop to listen, and if we can’t, we should stop anyway. When we learn to listen, we learn to hear, and when we learn to hear, we learn to speak. I listened to the creek crack stones in foaming eddies, heard the sharp disintegration into gravel, and spoke the name Metlako – she poured down her beauty and joined the flow at the bottom of the canyon, where salmon return in fall seeking gravel rinsed smooth by the narrative of creek song.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Back on the Train

The last few weeks have been up and down, but ended on an up-note: according to my doctor, I am 99.9% cancer free. After two weeks of tests and a suspect lymph node, this is fantastic news.

A few weeks ago, I had a CT scan and the images revealed an enlarged lymph node next to my spine, between my kidneys. A subsequent PET scan revealed that the image in the CT scan was actually my diaphragm, and it found no positive evidence of abnormal metabolism (tumors). My treatment from here on out will most likely be surveillance, repeated and frequent check-ups for several years to monitor against recurrence. No radiation or chemo required.

(Yes, I realize I'm using the language of medicine, even though I previously questioned the use of terms like surveillance. But it's just simpler to use it, even though it means I'm buying in to a line of thinking. That always carries risks, but right now those risks seem acceptable and not as great as the risk of being unclear).

It’s hard to write this. Not because it’s emotional, but because I feel like I’m done accepting the whole situation (not done with the situation, just done accepting it). This is a dangerous place to be. I went hiking last weekend, with two friends, and not only did I keep pace, but I maintained conversations while going uphill. I’m still in fairly good shape. All my basic tests – heart rate at rest, blood pressure, blood sugar, temperature – are perfect. I’m working eight-hour days, four days a week, and I feel fine. Physically, I’m okay, and I want to get back to hiking, training and strengthening up.

And mentally, I’m incredibly positive, motivated, and hopeful. Couple that with physical fitness, and there’s a risk of growing complacent about surveillance, and bored with the idea that I survived cancer. By bored, I mean moving on to the point where I displace the idea, where it doesn’t affect me on a day-to-day level, where enough time has passed that it isn’t a frequent topic of conversation. My illness doesn’t define me, but as a friend said, I define the illness.

I need to keep that definition fresh.

I meet with another doctor today. He's the head of oncology at Providence, and he was Lance Armstrong's doctor. After speaking with him, I'll have a full understanding of my options. I can choose to have radiation or chemotherapy, but it would be preventative, rather than curative, and I'm pretty certain I'll go for the surveillance. Seems like the easier, less invasive, and less expensive option. Besides, it won't reduce my risk of recurrence by much, and if it does recur, there's still nearly a 100% chance of beating it then. Constant monitoring will also keep me disciplined and on my toes.

So, good news. Eventually I’ll write about the last two weeks in more detail – the CT and PET scans were fascinating, but stressful, and I want to record my perspectives and experiences, even if it’s just for my own sake. I have a bunch of other writing projects and book reviews to work on, the weather is getting nicer, and I know I can handle the trails. Time to brew some maté, crack a book, visit a doctor, and head off to a night at the bookstore. Not a bad life, that.