Being Close: A Week With The Cancer Help Program
August 1, 2023
Take stock of what you can see in your life now that parts of it are gone: What view has that space created? What can you see now that you couldn’t see before?
Take in the new view. Keep Moving
Let change—even traumatic upheaval—remind you that everything is possible. When the dark cloud of chaos hangs over you, let possibility be the silver lining. Keep Moving
—Maggie Smith, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change
As I turn off Highway One onto the back road leading to Commonweal, I begin to feel the excitement and magical "far-away-nearby" vibe of Bolinas—butterflies in my solar plexus—the possibility of new, generative stories. Promising myself not to look at or listen to the news during this next week of volunteering as a guest staff member at the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, I intend to leave behind the world’s dark cloud of chaos for eight whole days.
Commonweal’s Cancer Help Program has been offered 219 in the last 37 years. It is a weeklong healing ritual of giving and receiving blessings, individually and as a group. Gifted staff members prepare and assemble a seven-day schedule, including individual and group counseling sessions about life and death, cancer therapies and treatments, massages, daily qi gong or yoga practice, sand tray readings, meditation, creative time with art-music-singing-dance, delicious and nutritious meals, along with guidance and accompaniment of tending one’s whole being—taking special care of grief, joy, confusion, anger, depression, mystery, creativity, friendship, dizziness, loneliness, humor, pain, comfort, intimacy, deeply felt togetherness…...
I am attending the Cancer Help Program Retreat for the first time in my 14 years of association with Commonweal— volunteering, working as a staff and board member, attending events and offering workshops. Knowing how being at Commonweal opens my heart and mind, this feels like an auspicious moment. Could there be "a silver lining" waiting here for all of us on the retreat? Could we see some new view or space created by what has been lost in our lives, maybe something we haven’t seen before?
Nine participants between the ages of 41 and 81 from California, other states, and Europe will arrive on Monday (tomorrow) morning. Each is in a different stage of illness, navigating various medical treatments. Ten staff members, most of them long term "regulars," will meet this first evening after dinner to prepare and discuss the week’s agenda. We are a seasoned, multi-disciplinary group—therapists, healers, nourishers, guiding lights, visionaries, and caregivers. Each of us has read 75 soulful pages of the participant’s applications including stories from their past and recent life, medical histories and diagnoses, dreams for the future, and expectations for the retreat. So we arrive on the portal of Pacific House for our first COVID test filled with the gravity and grace of their lives shared on paper.
We are all being extra careful by testing for COVID before starting, wearing masks for the first several days, and testing again mid-week. On that first evening, while waiting for my COVID test results, I reach into my backpack to share with another staff person an important book of healing by author Maggie Smith, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change. Every morning during the pandemic, I have pondered two or more pages of its tender and inspired wisdom while sipping my first cup of coffee. The little orange book is a record of what she calls her "self-directives, affirmations, encouragements, and notes to self." Writing each day was her reckoning with pain and grief—shock!—of the collapse of her 19 years of marriage, the sudden end to a certainty and security about her life, the story of herself that she thought she knew. The page I turn to now seems especially relevant to how any of us would feel at receiving a cancer diagnosis.
I thought that I knew my story. I thought that what I was living was the whole story, but it was only a chapter. The question I asked myself in those first days and weeks was, “What now?”
There were days and weeks when I could hardly get out of bed, hardly eat, but I felt a desire to write.
If everything was going to fall apart, I told myself, at least I could create something.
I was learning to live a different story, and I needed to find the words for it.
I had no idea what would happen next, what the next chapter would hold, but I had to get myself there. Keep Moving.
Having no idea what will happen next, I feel the butterflies fluttering in my solar plexus again, as we begin our retreat journey in a circle of staff introductions. The depth and diversity of experience, the knowledge of trauma and how to be with it, the compassion and good will created an immediate intimacy amongst us. Perhaps the butterflies are more pronounced than usual because of a recent "word dream" I experienced—no image, just a voice addressing me on the threshold between sleeping and waking. Tend the grief, said the gentle voice. It was an invitation, not a command, to enter into and receive new learnings about grief and healing. The dream was personal, yes, but it also felt bigger—a calling and an encouragement to tend to the healing and grief of our whole chaotic world.
As the excited participants—some showing a little nervousness—arrive the next day, I watch as they are warmly welcomed by everyone on staff beginning with one-on-one conversations with Michael Lerner (I am invited to sit in). He is at his brilliant best—caring and perceptive, kind and wise, deeply engaged and encouraging in the exchange with each person. Jenepher Stowell and Francis Weller will have one-on one opening and ongoing conversations with each person about grief and sacred space, and will also meet with all participants together in a group format throughout the retreat. Arlene Allsman is our energizer bunny director, tracking the details with Angela Madonia, who is often the yoga teacher for the CHP Retreats, but is shadowing Arlene this week while also filling the critically important role of housemother. Katrina Mayo-Smith will offer each participant their own magical sand tray experience. And the early morning Qi Gong class with Erline Chiang—beginning indoors and ending in the splendor of outdoors—awakens our energy in a beautiful ballet of breath and movement. Claire Heart's delicious meals made with love nourish us three times a day. Massages with Penny and Maya Ravani illuminate and liberate each person, cheeks glowing and hair rewilding. (You can read more about all of the staff on the website.)
As the week unfolds, a palpable warmth and ease develops in new friendships and deep sharings. I know how fortunate I am to be here, safely held and cared for by everyone, enjoying how close connections are being created in early morning walks to the beach and late-night conversations on the Pacific House couches. A colorful collage of drawings is taped to the Pacific House living room wall after emerging from a loving kindness meditation. Laughter at a flummoxed gospel singing ritual uplifts us into light-hearted sacred territory. Silver linings begin appearing everywhere in the spaciousness created by meandering walks and two-hour massages, quiet rest time, solstice sunsets, scheduled meetings, beautiful meals indoors and outdoors. Evenings are open for fun and play, exploring our creative selves, or inside the tent for deep listening. Caring energy hums back and forth between us like a hive of harmonious honeybees. We all sense it, very connected and close to each other. Even in the middle of the night, the amazing Angela, with her extra sensory perception, is able to give care and comfort when any one of us is awake and restless with back pain or insomnia.
But, can there be a silver lining—a new view—to a diagnosis and treatment of cancer? How can any of us face into serious illness and the near presence of death? What happens when we tend our grief as a precious part of our whole life?
Tending means paying attention to, looking after, taking special care of, being close to someone or something—a friend, a parent, a partner or child, a garden of roses or lifelong wounds. By being close to our feelings, being close to the details, being close to others who care about us and want to support our healing. When one participant’s blood oxygen levels dip below a safe number, staff expertly gathers in and makes the decision with her to go and be checked out at the emergency room an hour away. Though she doesn’t want to leave, hoping to return quickly, she is admitted to the hospital for a day and night of tests and observation. Knowing that her absence will have an effect on the group’s sense of safety and cohesion, Jenepher brings her deep clarity and intuitive healing energies to all of us as she communicates what’s happening. I watch how she tends us, so full of care and wisdom, assuring us how this emotionally-physically-spiritually-infused closeness is our strength.
All of this closeness takes time and intention, wise patience and a sense of humor, willingness to live into the new story. I watched every one of us take bold leaps of courage, trusting ourselves and each other, trusting in trust. Having worked as a bereavement counselor and hospice director for many years, I have direct experience with how much denial and masking grief—hiding deep feelings and insecurities—is our usual story, the one we carry in our contemporary western world of demanding immediate solutions and relief to all kinds of discomfort, valuing strength and resilience more than receptivity and softness, prizing individual accomplishments above collective and community well-being. We have dared and cared ourselves this week to go further, learning to live new and different stories, to seek what is possible, a renewed confidence to be with and share what hurts and what heals. Every magnificent participant and staff person—all of us being healers, some of us with cancer and others with no-cancer, all suffering and all healing in one way or another. All of us becoming closer to ourselves, closer to each other, closer to new life stories, and new views we had not seen before….
In the closing circle on our last morning, as we begin to look toward "What’s next?" and say our goodbyes, Michael asks each of us to say what it is we will never forget from our time here this week. I will remember this moment as we sit close together in a circle. Our faces relaxed and open—glowing—we have been restored to our wholeness, seen and heard for our goodness and beauty, for who we truly are in this precious life. We have held each other and ourselves close in our hearts, revealing fears and doubts, sharing painful wounds, missteps and regrets, found some silver linings in our darkest clouds. In this closing moment, we offer tears and laughter of connection and closeness, wishes for the health and well-being of each dear person, our blessings.
We are a healing circle of love.
Photos by Hillary Goidell