Thursday, November 29, 2012

Memento Mori

The ancient Romans used to carve “MM” on the bases of statues and on the trunks of trees. The letters stand for Memento Mori: Remember Death. This was not intended to be morbid but to be a reminder that life is short and death is always near. It was a tool for perspective and discernment. Philosophers and writers might keep a skull or bone on their desk for the same reason. Carlos Castaneda recommended that we live with death on our left shoulder and to consult him on our daily decisions.

Maybe this is one of cancer’s gifts. Death is close by in Cancer Land. You look at the person you are caring for, or you notice it in the others you meet at chemo or in hospital. Ordinary doctor visits are never the same. You never know when a routine check-up will lead to that phone call, “The doctor would like you to come in for another test” or “I’d like you to see a colleague of mine.”

Can we accept death’s presence for the gift that it is? Given that death is part of our lives it reminds us to ask, “What really matters?” Given that I will die, what do I really want?

And Then the Hair Grows in...

One thing I have never understood is how to work it so that when you’re married things keep happening to you. Things happen to you when you are single. You meet new men, you travel alone, you learn new tricks, you read Trollope, you try sushi, you buy nightgowns, you shave your legs. Then you get married and the hair grows in.

Nora Ephron, from her wonderful novel, “Heartburn”.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What About the Doctor?

I have heard so many stories from folks in CancerLand about doctors who disappear when the diagnosis is terminal, or who will not give a terminal diagnosis even when death is just a few days away. And stories of doctors who joke or rush or can't make eye contact with a seriously ill patient. What is that about?

In today's New York Times Jane Brody gives us a sense of what that may be for the physician who is treating someone with cancer. And she introduces us to some new interventions for the doctors--that can help them to cope and to stay emotionally present when cancer and death are near.

Again, the take away for all of us is that some form of meditation really works. It doesn't have to be Buddhist or New Age-ish but it is helpful whether you are the patient or the healer.

Take a look at this article. Here's the link:

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Thomas Merton Affair

I’m on Cape Cod this week to read and write. A house and a beach and some woods all to myself. It’s heaven. I brought Thomas Merton with me. I think of him often. He is a writer and a spiritual director that I can truly take to heart. He was a writer, speaker, teacher, monk and a lover.

Yes, we often skip over that part when we tell his story but I think it’s central to who Merton is and was. The reason we can be so consoled by his spiritual advice is because we can know that he deeply knew all of our human and complicated struggles.

Thomas Merton had a love affair when he was in his 40’s. He was then already a writer and spiritual celebrity of sorts. He was a cloistered monk at Gethsemane in Kentucky and he had written his bestselling Seven Story Mountain and other books. He was married to the Catholic Church.

Then hospitalized for back problems he fell in love with a nurse. And she with him. They resisted, connected, pulled back, cried, committed, talked, broke up, tried again and loved each other. The relationship was consummated in a garden near the hospital and they made love there and in Merton’s cloister near the Abbey. Some other monks knew and some sort of knew and others didn’t know at all.

But then the Master of the Abbey got wind of the relationship and confronted Merton, “How could you?” he said, and he insisted that Merton make a choice. This amazing man of God didn’t have an easy time. He saw her again, cried, begged, swore off, went to find her, sent her away and went to find her again, and then left again only to come back. Finally he chose the Church and his life of monasticism. But it was not easy. He was a tormented man even while being one of the world’s most famous monks and a great spiritual teacher.

Two years later—Merton was allowed to leave the Cloister to travel to Asia. It was, perhaps, a consolation from his Abbott. In Asia Merton made one of his greatest speeches and then he died tragically by accidental electrocution. We know from his journals that even that year he was still grieving the loss of his great love. 

I have always wondered about his lover, the nurse, the other woman. How did she hear the news? How did she grieve? She lost him and then she lost him again. Did she know of his despair? And what did it mean to her to later read his great prayer of faith and doubt?

I think of Merton as a man who loved and suffered and lived in the grey of faith and morality. Somehow it helps me to know that even Thomas Merton was never really Thomas Merton. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Books for Cancer and Sex

Love in the Time of Cancer is all about cancer and love and sex. I started writing this out of frustration in finding medical folks willing to talk openly and specifically about sex in the time of cancer. Since I couldn’t find those others I decided that I’d have to become what I was wishing for—not a bad way to approach many things in life I’ve discovered. So I started writing this blog, which became a book and then a presentation and now a cause.

So I love to share resources for other couples that are facing cancer and who want keep a great sex life. So many forces—medical, religious, cultural and social still think cancer and sex are separable but I—for many reasons believe they are inseparable. I had my first experience with cancer in my twenties when I was just discovering my sexual potential and I was not going to give that up. I got knocked for a loop but—like Rocky—came back stronger. And more passionate—in every sense. And grateful to the women and men that I learn from.

So here are two books and one writer that I highly recommend. The tagline on both books is identical and it says: “Reclaim your sex life after a cancer diagnosis…”

The books are: “Woman Cancer Sex” and “Man Cancer Sex” by Anne Katz, RN, PhD. Katz is an oncology nurse and a sexuality counselor at CancerCare Manitoba and she writes a regular column for The American Journal of Nursing called, “Sexually Speaking”.

Just to give you a sense of how complete and open her writing is, some of the chapter headings in “Woman Cancer Sex” and “Man Cancer Sex” include these topics: Loss of Sexual Desire; Problems with Orgasm; Painful Sex; Lesbians with Cancer; Partners of Patients with Cancer; Sex and Terminal Illness.
Not a lot of euphemisms in these books and no pretending that cuddling is enough.

Both books are paperbacks and can be ordered by your local bookstore.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Do Not Derange

I collect “Do Not Disturb” signs from hotels. I have a favorite from a beautiful hotel in Toronto that says “Do Not Disturb” on one side, and on the flip side of the card is the same phrase in French—“Ne Pas Deranger”. But, as John recently pointed out, the literal translation of this phrase in French is, “Do Not Derange”.  I keep this sign on my office door at home. It is fair warning to everyone in my life.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Grace for Thanksgiving Dinner

For food in a world where many walk in hunger.
 For faith in a world where many walk in fear.
 For friends in a world where many walk alone.
 We give you thanks, oh God.


---Dinner Grace from the movie: “Seven Days in Utopia