I have been feeling rather crusty and curmudgeonly of late and it’s so not me. In fact since cancer, I have pretty consistently lived a skippity do dah life that is happy and full of gratitude and sunshiny and fun. So, as the saying goes, when my soul is troubled I go down to the sea. The ocean has an amazing ability to wash my barnacles away and scrub free all the ick that has accumulated on my hull in the last year as I live my land locked life. Dinesen once said, “The cure for anything is salt water-sweat, tears or the sea.” While during the rest of the year the salt water of tears and sweat keep me afloat, the sea has this ability to finish the job; dissolving away what sweat and tears could not, and finding me beneath. As my beloved eecummings says:
“for whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
it’s always our self we find in the sea.”
Some years as I make this annual salty sojourn this little ship can barely make it into port for being so laden down with barnacles, almost needing a tug to finish the trip. And some years, I feel I could make it another year, foregoing the yearly scrape down. Some years, like the year after cancer treatment, it took four weeks of continuous salt scrub for this cancer pirated ship to surrender all it’s yuck, and for the sea in her gracious majesty to take it and swallow it into her depths so that I could return home, squeaky clean and new; a captain again.
This year I sailed into shore knowing full well I needed a serious scrape down, feeling the weighted down, slowing drag of the barnacle build up of the last year. Oddly too, my little ship was listing to one side. If you looked at one side of me you saw the same old joy and clean blue sparkle that is Lauren’s life, yet to look at the other side was to see me covered with the crusty abrasiveness that is barnacles and seaweed and a tangle of sea junk thrown in. It was as if all the barnacles had chosen to attach to only one side, frantically pushing me in my life on board, to throw all that I owned onto the other side of the boat to counterbalance the list to prevent the tip that would sink my ship. Making me weary and curmudgeonly.
I needed for the barnacles to be gone, and I needed to figure out why these darn parasites were so one-sided.
Before I left town Cassie, the girl who magically returns my dark hair to the natural shade of blonde highlights I was born with and I chatted as I was foiled. She told me about a recent visit with her some of her family, a group of people who had it all but were not happy, and how here she was struggling to make ends meet yet she was the happiest she had been in her life. She talked about how angry it made it her feel to see folks with so much be so ungrateful. As she grabbed another foil, I just blurted out, “You know what? I am just so sick of listening to people’s shit. I mean, people who have it all, money, job success, financial freedom to move about the cabin, healthy marriages, healthy bodies, healthy kids. I am tired of seeing people with enviable lives, who have had little hardship in life, complain!” I added for good measure, that I am also tired of people dragging out chronic problems, (many of which I have faced tenfold and fixed) and replaying them over and over to me, making no effort to fix them; people who despite being helped, just keep digging the hole deeper.
Cassie nodded with the wisdom of a gal who does (mostly) rich people’s hair all day.
I told her that in contrast, I’ve seen how life should be as I’ve watched and admired another friend from afar. She has several children with significant health issues, yet she appears to live the most happy, grateful life. Never have I ever seen a bitch and moan, or woe is me status on her Facebook but instead, pictures of her most beautiful ocean blue life; a life filled with children and seashells and smiles and a garden full of a ripe life that has been planted and nurtured by gratitude. She has been a breath of salt air and she reminds me that pure gratitude in the face of hardship still exists in the world. She highlights for me the contrast between the blue I had known and the grey I was feeling, between my clean starboard, and my barnacle laden port.
Cassie nodded with the wisdom of a gal who does (mostly) rich people’s hair all day.
Here is what it was. I had lost patience with people. My compassion and empathy bank, which had been infinite and bottomless all of my life, had run dry. I had run aground. And it wasn’t me, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
Curmudgeonly old salt I am, I went to the sea to find me.
Toes in the sand, I struggled with the embarrassment of sharing these selfish feelings with a friend, trying to stem them like avoiding vomit when all the sudden the truth just tearfully burbled out, “I am having feelings that feel so un-me like and I don’t know what to do! I am thinking thinks that are so not like me. I don’t like this.” Icky and bitter and impatient and judgmental and frustrated and negative thinks. He, with a breath of kindness listened and said, “You know what Lauren? People have problems and no, maybe they aren’t as big as cancer but all that to say, they still need to be heard, and listened to, and they deserve compassion; they are still hurting no more or no less than you.”
“Yeah I know that,” I said crustily. DUH! THAT was the problem. I knew that they deserved it, but the problem was, I just couldn’t muster it anymore; compassion for someone having a car battery die when cancer almost took me out, empathy for a friend’s crow’s feet when I was left with a mangled breast and when I had tons of big gun yuck piled on for years. When I had gone through many a tide of relentless pummeling, bringing with it physical and financial and emotional devastation, and I didn’t whine, I didn’t complain, I didn’t become a martyr or victim, didn’t blame; I just simply fought out the storm, hoisted my sails and steered my ship into calmer waters.
I sat on the beach all pissy and kicked at the sand. Where had my compassion gone? I was so un-me, it was excuse the pun, quite a sinking feeling.
It was the akin to the feeling I got when hearing people complain about their mothers, when I would everything I own to have my mom back for just one hour. I was tired of hearing people bitch and moan about their very good and healthy and stable lives when I had almost lost mine to cancer, when there was a time I could not afford a new dog leash when the old one was lost, when there were times I literally have ached for someone to have my back. I was tired of hearing whine about problems, the same problems that I had done nothing but put on my big girl pants and fixed in my life.
Cancer does indeed give you clarity about what is and is not big stuff in life; what are gifts and what true problems are and are not. My self-righteous mantra when faced with anyone’s problems, not just my own, had become a minimizing, “It’s not cancer.”
And then I got it. I, had become a cancer snob, a cancer elitist if you will. Your stuff is small stuff, trifling stuff compared to my stuff. I would trade my stuff for your stuff any day. You need a microscope to see your troubles next to my cancer. And on top of that darn it, don’t you get how damn lucky you are to have crows feet and not cancer? Don’t you get how lucky you are to go get a new battery with no thoughts of how to pay for it?
Cancer snobs have no empathy or compassion. Ick.
The next morning, I packed a PB&J and a Cheerwine and headed down to the rural end of the island for answers. Now, I know this spot well, for this place is my most favoritist place on this earth. Wild and grainy and rough, covered with sea oats and fire-wheel wildflowers and twisted gnarly trees which have survived hurricanes; it just feels like me. Marshlands filled with green green life; the sea wind blows the sand against you hard, the sting reminding you that you are alive, sandblasting the crap that covers your soul.
It is also the place where a notorious hermit lived out his life in an old abandoned war bunker many years ago. Where he escaped life to exist alone, living off the land and imparting his wisdom and philosophies of his, “School of Common Sense” to those who would visit and share their food and wine in an exchange that left both feeling sated and full. A friend of his once said, “He was always down there in the marsh, looking and listening. He knew the life down there.”
Indeed, the hermit’s epitaph reads, “He made people think.”
I needed a dose of that common sense for sure; I needed to think.
As I hiked along, waiting for common sense to tap me on the shoulder, I hunted for shells and shark teeth. It was then that I remembered a day several years back, just after cancer treatment with a then 8-year-old Amelia on that very beach. Now, you need to know that Amelia is the Queen of finding shark teeth. It’s just uncanny how she can peer into a twisted mangle of broken shells and sand and in seconds discern and pull the teeth out, one after another. With laser clarity too, she can instantly dismiss what I hold out to her in my palm as, “broken shell” vs. “shark tooth.”
As Amelia and I hunted that day several years back, we came upon a family who it appeared by their amazement at it all, was on their first visit ever to the ocean. The place we hunt is the at state park end of the island so often, you will find people there who come in for day visits. This family was likely in from rural NC, wearing wet sandy jeans, not having swimsuits or towels. (And having fun and feeling lucky despite this mind you.)
As Amelia plucked tooth after tooth from the sand, the family came up and asked what she was finding. She showed them the teeth and they got very excited, I mean VERY EXCITED as they had never seen them before. And then with a few instructions from the pro, they all fanned out and began searching for shark teeth.
After a while there was an excited shout and then huddle up of the group down the beach. Then, the oldest kid ran to Amelia, grinning as if he had gold in his tightly closed fist with the others (adults included) in quick pursuit behind him, the apparent lucky winner.
And as they gathered ’round Amelia, the kid’s hand opened to reveal the black bit in his palm. They excitedly asked, “Is this one?!”
Even I, a novice compared to the Queen, could see it was not; it was a broken shell.
I watched as this little face looked down into his palm, eager faces surrounding her waiting on her words. Standing next to her, I could just feel her internal struggle as she worked out in her head just what to say; how not to disappoint, how not to steal the joy the family felt. How to be truthful and not lie as her momma had taught her not to.
Then, that tiny little sunburned nose tipped upward to them and said, “Well, maybe, it sure looks like it!” And with that she reached in her pocket and gave them all that she had found that day, dumping the teeth into their palms and blending hers in with what they had found. A palm full of treasure, where they were unable to discern who had found what, as they were now a blend of all the same.
Later, she and I talked about how important and good and right that was, what she had done. How likely the family went back and told their friends about finding shark teeth on their first trip to the beach. We imagined how the kids had likely taken the teeth to school and said, “Look! Look what I found!”
But we talked mostly about how her simple act of kindness made their day. How sometimes, it is better to be kind than right.
Five years later now, as I walked on that very beach alone I realized how quickly I, with my own cancer bestowed laser clarity about what real problems are in the world, had been so quick to dismiss other’s troubles as they held them out in their opened palm for me to see. How I had made habit of looking into their hand and instantly discerning what they showed me, judging it as not real as compared to mine, sometimes not even listening to the end of the story, not taking to the time to even really look at what they showed me. Stealing their feelings in that instant, like brushing sand away in your hands; betraying and perhaps shaming the trust it took to open their palm.
I’d imagine the hermit would tell you it is indeed common sense that cancer gives you the ability to see many of life’s problems that come your way as small stuff from then on. But what it doesn’t give you is permission to minimize and make small the stuff of others. Cancer gives you laser clarity and the ability to discern quickly what is and is not big stuff in life; in your life that is, not in other’s lives. We who have been through this hell must be mindful like the hermit, of tending only to our own lives, living off what our land has shown us; yet still being grateful for what the world brings and shares with us and what we can give back in exchange.
Once, many lives ago, I talked with my doctor about how he picked his discipline. He told me that he initially wanted to go into neurology, following in the footsteps of a mentor who he so admired. But, he told me just as he had told his mentor, he felt like it was a dismal field where in so many of the cases there was nothing you could do. “There is always something you can do,” the mentor chided him, “You can be kind.”
I get it. Sometimes, compassion demands nothing more than simply being kind; than guarding the realness of something for someone.
Kindness looks patiently into the palm of the offerer and says,”Is that a big life issue? Well maybe, it sure looks like one!”
Instead of spending our time trying to discern what is real and not, we must simply be down there in the marsh looking and listening, knowing the life down there, knowing that that life has things as important to say and be heard as does yours. Kindly trodding our way through the marsh so as not to step on any life, no matter how minuscule it may appear.
Knowing that what is to be shared is not the muck you sorted through to find the treasure, but the treasure itself.
Sometimes we must reach into our pocket and pull out what we have to be stronger and richer together. When you kindly and without second thought, mix what you have gathered in life in with what others have gathered, it does indeed make us both sated and rich; leaving our wisdom and a seamless blended treasure for them to carry home in their hands and say, “Look! Look what I found!”
“My life here goes up and down like the tides of this old sea out here… Only nature determines my existence.”
~Robert Harrill ~ the Fort Fisher Hermit.”